Derek Barton

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Gravesend, Kent
Birth Sign
Gravesend, Kent

Sir Derek Harold Richard Barton was an English chemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contributions to the study of organic molecules’ three-dimensional form. Odd Hassel, a Norwegian scientist, and he split the prize. In 1950, while researching ‘conformational analysis,’ or the ‘geometries of a molecule and their associated energies,’ Barton proposed that the orientations of functional groups in space affected the reaction rates of isomers. During the period 1940-1970, Barton was one of the great scientists at the heart of the movement that brought about a revolution in the field of organic chemistry. He did not limit himself to a single discipline of chemistry, but instead explored many other aspects of the science. He was gifted with the capacity to extract the broad implications of other chemists’ work and to bridge the gaps between diverse domains of chemistry. He had the courage to suggest lines of reasoning that had been unfinished up to that point using his intuition rather than deductive logic. He studied the oxidation of saturated hydrocarbons as well as the behavior of oxyradicals. He devised a simpler method of synthesizing the hormone ‘aldosterone,’ which was needed to treat Addison’s illness.

Childhood and Adolescence

Derek Barton was born on September 8, 1918, in Gravesend, Kent, England. His father, William Thomas Barton, was a carpenter, and his mother, Maude Henrietta Lukes, was a housewife. From 1926 to 1929, he attended the ‘Gravesend Grammar School,’ the ‘King School, Rochester,’ from 1929 to 1932, and the ‘Tonbridge School, Kent,’ from 1932 to 1935.

To prepare for chemistry, he enrolled for a year at the nearby ‘Gillingham Technical College’ in Gillingham, England.
In 1938, he enrolled in Imperial College, London, and graduated with a B.Sc. in Chemistry in 1940. From 1940 to 1942, he worked on his PhD while receiving a research fellowship from Guiness Research, Distilleries Co. Ltd.
Martin Mugdan, an industrial chemist who had left Germay in 1939, supervised him when he received his PhD in 1942. In 1950, he got his D.Sc. from the ‘Imperial College.’

Career of Derek Barton

After completing his PhD, Derek Barton was asked to join the military forces to fight in World War II. He joined Military Intelligence instead after being ruled unfit for normal military service due to a weak heart. He spent two years in the Military Intelligence developing an invisible ink that could not be detected by iodine spray during his time there.

After quitting MI after the war, he taught chemistry at the ‘Imperial College, London’ from 1945 to 1946. He joined Albright & Wilson’s ‘Imperial Chemical Industries,’ a major phosphorous producer, in 1946 at their Oldbury factory in the English Midlands, where he worked on ‘organophosphorous chemistry’ until 1947. In 1947, he returned to Imperial College, London, as a teaching assistant and focused on steroid chemistry.

Louis Fieser, the chairman of the chemistry department at Harvard University, was impressed by his work on steroid chemistry and offered him a one-year temporary position as a researcher. During his time at Harvard, he created his ‘conformational analysis’ hypothesis. In 1950, he returned to England and began working as a Reader at the ‘University of London’s’Birkbeck College’ as an Associate Professor of organic chemistry, later becoming a Professor in 1953. He remained in this position until 1955.

He became a ‘Regius Professor of Chemistry’ at the ‘University of Glasgow’ in 1955 and stayed there until 1957.
In 1957, he returned to Imperial College, London, as chairman of the chemistry department, a position he held until 1970.

During this period, he was recruited to work with the ‘Schering Corporation’-funded ‘Research Institute for Medicine and Chemistry’ in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here, Barton devised the ‘Barton reaction,’ which enabled the production of huge quantities of the hitherto scarce ‘aldosterone acetate,’ which is used to regulate the electrolytic balance of the human body. The Ciba pharmaceutical corporation decided to establish the ‘Woodward Research Institute’ in Basel, Switzerland, as a result of this success.

After divorcing Kate in the early 1960s, Barton became unhappy and enrolled in the ‘Institut Francais’ in South Kensington to learn French. Here he met Christiane Cognet, his teacher, whom he married in 1969. In 1969, he was elected president of the ‘British Association for the Advancement of Science’ and the ‘International Union of Pure and Applied Physics.’ In 1970, the ‘Imperial College, London’ named him a ‘Hoffman Professor of Organic Chemistry,’ which he held until 1978.

From 1978 until 1986, he was the Director of the ‘Institute of Chemistry of Natural Substances’ in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, after resigning from Imperial College. Barton became a ‘Distinguished Professor of Chemistry’ at Texas A&M University in the United States in 1986 and stayed there until 1995. From 1995 to 1998, he was a ‘Dow Distinguished Professor of Chemical Invention’ at Texas A&M University.

Major Projects of Derek Barton

Derek Barton and W. D. Ollis worked on the book ‘Comprehensive Organic Chemistry,’ which was released in 1979.
In 1991, he released ‘Some Recollections of Gap Jumping.’ In 1993, the book ‘Half a Century of Free Radical Chemistry’ was released, and in 1996, the book ‘Reason and Imagination: Reflections on Organic Chemistry Research’ was published.

Achievements & Awards

Derek Barton was awarded the ‘Corday-Morgan Medal’ by the ‘Royal Society of Chemistry’ in 1951, and was elected to the ‘Royal Society’ in 1954 and the ‘Royal Society of Edinburg’ in 1956. The ‘American Chemical Society’ awarded him the Fritzsche Award in 1956, the ‘Roger Adams Medal’ in 1960, and the ‘Davy Medal’ in 1961. In 1967, he was inducted into the ‘German Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina’ as a ‘Foreign Member.’ In 1969, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In 1972, he received the ‘RSC Longstaff Prize’ and the ‘Royal Medal.’ In 1972, he was appointed a “Knight of the British Empire” and a member of the “Legion d’Honneur.” In 1985, he was promoted to officer of the legion.
In 1980, he was awarded the Copley Medal, and in 1995, he was awarded the Priestley Medal. He was inducted into the ‘American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ and the ‘American Chemical Society’ as a ‘Foreign Member.’ At various times, he gave honorary lectures at a number of American universities.

Personal History and Legacy

On December 20, 1944, he married Jeanne Kate Wilkins, a clerk, and they divorced in the early 1960s. From his marriage, he produced a son, William Godfrey Lukes Barton. Christiane Cognet, who died of ovarian cancer in 1992, he married in 1969. In 1993, Barton married Judith Cobb, who he met after Christiane’s death. Derek Barton died on March 16, 1998, in College Station, Texas, of a heart attack.

Estimated Net Worth

The estimated net worth of Derek Barton is $1 million