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The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1978
Peter Mitchell

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Peter Mitchell - Biographical

Peter Mitchell was born in Mitcham, in the County of Surrey, England, on September 29, 1920. His parents, Christopher Gibbs Mitchell and Kate Beatrice Dorothy (née) Taplin, were very different from each other temperamentally. His mother was a shy and gentle person of very independent thought and action, with strong artistic perceptiveness. Being a rationalist and an atheist, she taught him that he must accept responsibility for his own destiny, and especially for his failings in life. That early influence may well have led him to adopt the religious atheistic personal philosophy to which he has adhered since the age of about fifteen. His father was a much more conventional person than his mother, and was awarded the O.B.E. for his success as a Civil Servant.

Peter Mitchell was educated at Queens College, Taunton, and at Jesus college, Cambridge. At Queens he benefited particularly from the influence of the Headmaster, C.L. Wiseman, who was an excellent mathematics teacher and an accomplished amateur musician. The result of the scholarship examination that he took to enter Jesus College Cambridge was so dismally bad that he was only admitted to the University at all on the strength of a personal letter written by C.L. Wiseman. He entered Jesus College just after the commencement of war with Germany in 1939. In Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos he studied physics, chemistry, physiology, mathematics and biochemistry, and obtained a Class III result. In part II, he studied biochemistry, and obtained a II-I result for his Honours Degree.

He accepted a research post in the Department of Biochemistry, Cambridge, in 1942 at the invitation of J.F. Danielli. He was very fortunate to be Danielli's only Ph.D. student at that time, and greatly enjoyed and benefited from Danielli's friendly and unauthoritarian style of research supervision. Danielli introduced him to David Keilin, whom he came to love and respect more than any other scientist of his acquaintance.

He received the degree of Ph.D. in early 1951 for work on the mode of action of penicillin, and held the post of Demonstrator at the Department of Biochemistry, Cambridge, from 1950 to 1955. In 1955 he was invited by Professor Michael Swann to set up and direct a biochemical research unit, called the Chemical Biology Unit, in the Department of Zoology, Edinburgh University, where he was appointed to a Senior Lectureship in 1961, to a Readership in 1962, and where he remained until acute gastric ulcers led to his resignation after a period of leave in 1963.

From 1963 to 1965, he withdrew completely from scientific research, and acted as architect and master of works, directly supervising the restoration of an attractive Regency-fronted Mansion, known as Glynn House, in the beautiful wooded Glynn Valley, near Bodmin, Cornwall - adapting and furnishing a major part of it for use as a research labotatory. In this, he was lucky to receive the enthusiastic support of his former research colleague Jennifer Moyle. He and Jennifer Moyle founded a charitable company, known as Glynn Research Ltd., to promote fundamental biological research and finance the work of the Glynn Research Laboratories at Glynn House. The original endowment of about £250,000 was donated about equally by Peter Mitchell and his elder brother Christopher John Mitchell.

In 1965, Peter Mitchell and Jennifer Moyle, with the practical help of one technician, Roy Mitchell (unrelated to Peter Mitchell), and with the administrative help of their company secretary, embarked on the programme of research on chemiosmotic reactions and reaction systems for which the Glynn Research Institute has become known. Since its inception, the Glynn Research Institute has not had sufficient financial resources to employ more than three research workers, including the Research Director, on its permanent staff. He has continued to act as Director of Research at the Glynn Research Institute up to the present time. An acute lack of funds has recently led to the possibility that the Glynn Research Institute may have to close.

Beside his interest in communication between molecules, Peter Mitchell has become more and more interested in the problems of communication between individual people in civilised societies, especially in the context of the spread of violence in the increasingly collectivist societies in most parts of the world. His own experience of small and large organisations in the scientific world has led him to regard the small organisations as being, not only more alive and congenial, but also more effective, for many (although perhaps not all) purposes. He would therefore like to have the opportunity to become more deeply involved in studies of the ways in which sympathetic communication and cooperative activity between free and potentially independent people may be improved. One of his specific interests in this field of knowledge is the use of money as an instrument of personal responsibility and of choice in free societies, and the flagrant abuse and basically dishonest manipulation of the system of monetary units of value practised by the governments of most nations.

Awards and affiliations
CIBA Medal and Prize, British Biochemical Society, 1973
Member, European Molecular Biology Organisation, 1973
Fellowship of the Royal Society, 1974
Warren Triennial Prize, jointly with Efraim Racker, U.S.A., 1974
Louis and Bert Freedman Foundation Award, New York Academy of Sciences, 1974
Honorary Member, American Society of Biological Chemists, 1975
Foreign Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1975
Wilhelm Feldberg (Anglo/German) Foundation Prize, 1976
Dr. rerum naturalium honoris cause of the Technische Universität, Berlin, 1976
Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award, U.S.A., 1977
Foreign Associate, National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A., 1977
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science, Exeter University, U.K., 1977
Sir Hans Krebs Lecture and Medal of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies, 1978
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science, University of Chicago, 1978

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1978, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1979

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

 

Peter Mitchell died on April 10, 1992.

 

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1978
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