Papers and correspondence of Richard Laurence Millington Synge, 1914-1994

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection is uneven in its coverage but papers survive from all phases of Synge's life and career. Biographical material is extensive. The personal material includes pocket diaries 1926, 1945-1992. There are records of Synge's childhood in the form of school work, reports and printed material, and of his time as an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge, principally his lecture notes and work sheets. Documentation of Synge's later career, honours and awards is patchy but there is material relating to the award of the Nobel Prize. There is much family material including correspondence between his parents and their correspondence with him, for example during Synge's time at Winchester College and Trinity College. Synge's political interests are not particularly well documented although there is material relating to the Communist Party in the 1940s, the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR 1946-1955 and to his later links with the 'peace movement' including Scientists Against Nuclear Arms 1981-1991. There are also many photographs.

There is a little documentation of Synge's career at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, 1943-1948. It includes correspondence and papers relating to Synge's appointment including his statement of proposed work, inventories of equipment and chemicals, and miscellaneous administrative material. There are also papers relating to Synge's visit to Tiselius's laboratory at Uppsala during this period. There is documentation of Synge's appointment to the Rowett Research Institute, his departmental headship including research programmes, equipment and staff, the ARC Visiting Groups to the Institute, and administrative material including sets of Institute notices and circulars. Food Research Institute material is not extensive. It includes correspondence and papers relating to Synge's appointment including his plan of research, comments on Lord Rothschild's 1971 Green Paper A Framework for Government Research and Development, administrative papers from the Chemistry Division, and project reports from Synge's research.

Synge's research is also documented in notebooks and research notes. The notebooks document Synge's research from postgraduate studies in the mid 1930s, through work for the WIRA in Leeds, the Lister Institute, the Rowett Research Institute and the Food Research Institute, to post-retirement work in the 1990s on electronic storage of chemical information. The research notes cover the period 1938-1987. They include reports on work on proteins for the WIRA 1938-1943, wartime work on grass protein 1939-1943 and gramicidin S 1944-1946, studies on the nutritive value of by-products of the herring industry 1949-1951, and papers relating to computer searching for chemical information searches 1981. There is documentation of some of Synge's scientific publications 1940-1992, public lectures 1942-1983 and broadcasts 1947-1961. The publications material is not comprehensive and there are relatively few drafts of Synge's biochemistry publications. There are translations of articles in the Soviet scientific literature on gramicidin S and correspondence and papers relating to the possible translation from the Russian of Mikhail Semenovich Tsvet 1872-1919 by E.M. Senchenkova. There is also editorial correspondence. Lectures material documents some of Synge's many public and invitation lectures including his 1951 Second P.F. Frankland Memorial Lecture to the Royal Institute of Chemistry and the Institution of Electrical Engineers. In general there are few drafts, the bulk of the material is correspondence regarding arrangements. There are, however, drafts found in Synge's two folders inscribed 'Unpublished etc' including book reviews and drafts on the history of science, and a set of the collected off-prints of Synge's published work.

Visits, conferences and travel material covers the period 1945-1992. The most extensively documented visit is Synge's stay in New Zealand 1958-1959, including travel on the Trans-Siberian railway on the return journey to the UK. Significant documentation survives for the 1955 International Wool Textile Research Conference in Australia, the International Symposium on the Origins of the Earth, Moscow, USSR, 1957, Synge's visits to India as a guest of the Indian Statistical Institute in 1965, 1966 and 1970, and his visit to Cuba in May 1969. Synge's involvement with 24 UK and overseas organisations and societies is documented from ca 1936 to 1993. There is material relating to the Agricultural Research Council, principally the Ruminant Metabolism Group 1949-1953 and N.W. Pirie's proposals for research on the extraction of leaf protein 1951-1953. Also represented by significant material are the Association of Scientific Workers - Synge was an enthusiastic supporter of the Association and served as a Vice-President from 1954, the Biochemical Society - Synge served on the Editorial Board of the Biochemical Journal 1949-1955, the British Nutrition Foundation - Synge was a scientific governor of the Foundation 1974-1979, the Royal Society, and the Royal Society of Chemistry - particularly relating to its Chemical Information Group, 1984-1987.

Synge's scientific correspondence is substantial and important. There is an alphabetical sequence of principal correspondents including A.C. Chibnall, S.R. Elsden, J.H. Humphrey, Hugh Gordon, Dorothy Hodgkin, H.R. Marston, A.J.P. Martin, Stanford Moore, N.W. Pirie, P.L. Robinson, F. Sanger and A.W.K. Tiselius. There is also a chronological sequence of shorter scientific correspondence, 1936-1993.

Administrative / Biographical History

Synge was born in Liverpool on 28 October 1914. He was educated at Winchester College and Trinity College Cambridge, graduating with a Double First in the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1936. After graduation Synge remained in Cambridge, researching in the Department of Biochemistry under the supervision of N.W. Pirie on protein analysis, in particular the separation of acetyl acids. In 1938 in connection with this work, he met A.J.P. Martin, also working in Cambridge, who had devised apparatus for the extraction of vitamin E. They collaborated to build a more sophisticated apparatus for the separation of amino acids by extraction techniques. Synge, with the support of the Australian biochemist H.R. Marston, was given a studentship from the International Wool Secretariat for joint research with Martin. In 1938 Martin moved to the Wool Industries Research Association (WIRA) Laboratories in Leeds. He was followed shortly thereafter by Synge whose studentship was transferred to Leeds. Following the award of his Ph.D. in 1940 Synge was appointed Biochemist to the WIRA. Synge and Martin continued their joint work developing their ideas for chromatography and in May 1941, using a silica gel column, they demonstrated that partition chromatography could work in practice. This allowed complex biochemical substances to be broken down and analysed with a facility impossible with previous chemical techniques. Over the next few years Synge and Martin worked to find a more versatile medium than silica gel and developed the paper chromatograph. Their invention of the technique of partition chromatography transformed the area of science that would come to be known as molecular biology.

In 1943, in order to work in an area more relevant to the war effort, Synge joined the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London. He researched on the chemistry of the antibiotic polypeptides of the gramicidin-tyrocidine group. During this period good relations with the USSR meant that samples of the antibiotic gramicidin S were made available. In 1945 using paper chromatography Synge established the sequence of the amino acids in gramicidin S. For the period August 1946 - May 1947 Synge worked with A.W.K. Tiselius at the Physical Chemistry Institute, Uppsala University, Sweden. In 1948 Synge moved to the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen so that he could work on more immediately practical aspects of biochemistry. He headed the Department of Protein and Carbohydrate Chemistry and in 1965 was appointed Deputy Director of the Institute. His research concentrated on the digestion of proteins, chiefly leaf proteins. During this time Synge made a number of extended visits abroad, visiting New Zealand in 1958-1959 to help investigate the cause and possible cure for facial eczema in sheep and India in 1965, 1966 and 1970 as guest of the Indian Statistical Institute, studying problems of tropical agriculture. In 1967 Synge joined the Agricultural Research Council's new Food Research Institute in Norwich. Here he worked on the combination of phenolic compounds of plants with proteins and also on problems relating to the electronic storage and retrieval of information on the structure of organic chemical compounds. In 1968 Synge was appointed Honorary Professor of Biology at the University of East Anglia, a post he held until 1984. He retired from the Institute in 1976 but continued his research up to his death in 1994.

Synge was on the political Left and in the 1930s and 1940s was a member of the Communist Party. This led to his being refused entry to the United States in 1949. In his later life he was active in the 'peace movement', as a member of the Scientists Against Nuclear Arms organisation and the Norwich branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Synge was elected FRS in 1950. He and Martin were jointly awarded the 1952 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their invention of partition chromatography. He died on 18 August 1994. See Hugh Gordon, 'Richard Laurence Millington Synge', Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 42 (1996), 455-479.


By section as follows: Biographical, Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, Rowett Research Institute, Food Research Institute, Research, Publications, lectures and broadcasts, Visits, conferences and travel, Societies and organisations, Correspondence. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

By appointment only.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Richard Laurence Millington Synge (1914-1994) by T.E. Powell, P. Harper, A. Nardone and A. Hayward, NCUACS catalogue no. 73/2/98, 285 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Separated Material

Correspondence from Synge to Pamela L. Robinson is held with the Robinson papers at the Palaeontology Library, Natural History Museum, London.

Synge's Winchester College Senior Science Prize project, 'Experiment on the Viscosity of Gases', 1932 is held in Winchester College archives.

A facsimile letter from Charles Darwin to George Rolleston from 1876, found with the papers, has been added to the files of the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University Library.

Dr R.W.A. Oliver, Honorary Archivist of the Biochemical Society, has arranged for the deposit of Synge's chemicals and apparatus with the Society.

Custodial History

Received for cataloguing by by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from Dr Ann Synge (widow) in May 1996 and from Dr Elizabeth Smith and Dr Charlotte Synge (daughters) in August and September 1997. Deposited in Trinity College Library in 1998.