25th Anniversary: Death of Richard Laurence Millington Synge

25th Anniversary: Death of Richard Laurence Millington Synge

Author: Catharina Goedecke

Richard Laurence Millington Synge was born on October 28, 1914, in Liverpool, UK. He was distantly related both to the famous Irish playwright John Millington Synge and to the mathematician and physicist John Lighton Synge. In 1928, Synge went to Winchester College, UK, a boys’ boarding school, where he first studied classics and later natural science. Starting in 1933, he studied physics, chemistry, physiology, and biochemistry at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, UK.

From 1936 to 1939, Synge was a research student in the university’s biochemical laboratory, and from 1939 to 1941, he worked at the Wool Industries Research Association in Leeds, UK. He obtained his Ph.D. degree from Cambridge University in 1941 and then joined the staff of the Wool Industries Research Association. In 1943, Synge joined the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, London, UK. From 1948 to 1967, he worked at the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, UK, and from 1967 to 1976 at the Food Research Institute, Norwich, UK.

Synge is best known for co-developing partition chromatography together with Archer John Porter Martin. In standard column chromatography, a mixture of compounds is separated by passing it through a column containing a stationary solid phase and a mobile liquid phase. The separation is based on the compound’s different adsorption properties on the solid phase.

In partition chromatography, the compounds are distributed between two liquid phases instead of a solid and a liquid phase. At first, the team used a water phase and a chloroform phase to separate amino acids in a very complex counter-current extraction apparatus. However, this process was slow and cumbersome. The researchers figured that the setup could be vastly simplified by immobilizing the water phase on silica or paper and letting only the organic phase move. This breakthrough made the method much simpler. It also inspired several other new separation methods, such as gas chromatography (GC).

Together with Martin, Synge first demonstrated partition chromatography to the Biochemical Society at its meeting on June 7, 1941. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1952 was awarded jointly to Synge and Martin “for their invention of partition chromatography.”

Synge was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1950 and of the Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1952. He also was an Honorary Member of the American Society of Biological Chemists. Richard Laurence Millington Synge died on August 18, 1994, in Norwich, UK.

Richard Laurence Millington Synge is the answer to Guess the Chemist (92).


Selected Publications

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