Lives of the fellows

Rudolph Albert (Sir) Peters

b.13 April 1889 d.29 January 1982
Kt(1952) MC(1917) MA Cantab(1914) MB BChir(1915) MD(1919) FRS(1935) FRCP*(1952)†

Rudolph Peters was born in Kensington, the son of Albert Edward Duncan Ralph Peters, a general practitioner in Midhurst, and later in Petersfield. His grandfather, Ralph Benjamin Peters, had been born in Denmark, the son of Rudolph Peters (1781 —1861), a captain in the Danish Army who had been appointed, by King Christian VIII, a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog for his part in the defence of Altona against the French.

His mother, Agnes Watts, was the granddaughter of Commander CN Watts, RN, whose father, Admiral George Watts CB, had been engaged in many naval actions in the time of Napoleon. Another Watts ancestor fell while serving under the Duke of Kent in Martinique in 1794, and yet another had fought under the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Culloden.

He was educated first at Warden House, Deal, where he became head boy, and later at Wellington, where he entered as a classical scholar and was at first put onto the classical side, which the Headmaster assured him would provide a most suitable background for medicine. He had no formal teaching in science until his last year at Wellington, although by the age of 17 he had become interested in it as a hobby.

On leaving Wellington, and while waiting for a vacancy for admission to Cambridge, he spent a year in London at King’s College. In 1908 he entered Gonville and Caius College, and in 1910 obtained first class honours in Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos. While working for his Part II in physiology he embarked on his first research problem. This was to determine the relationship between iron and oxygen in haemoglobin. The results he obtained were of fundamental importance in showing that they exist in stoichiometric proportions, and that although the oxygen is dissociable it is present in true chemical combination with the iron.

He was, unfortunately, unable to sit for his Part II examination because in the early summer of 1912 he developed typhoid fever, and was forced to spend five weeks in a nursing home in London.

On returning to Cambridge in the autumn of 1912 he worked with AV Hill on the relation between heat production and lactic acid formation in muscle following stimulation through the nerve.

In 1914 he was awarded a fellowship at Caius, but on the outbreak of World War I he left Cambridge for London to complete his medical education at his father’s old hospital, St Bartholomew’s Hospital. He was evidently very happy at Bart’s as he has recorded that ‘it was a very warm cosy place. The old ladies used to call you "dearie", and you really got some sense of what clinical medicine meant in the Bart’s surgery. It was a very splendid place.’

After qualifying in the summer of 1915 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, and in November of that year was sent to France. He served for six months with a field ambulance and at advanced dressing stations around Béthune, and was then posted to the 1st Battalion of the 60th Rifles as their medical officer. He was with them throughout the Delville Wood, Vimy Ridge and Beaumont Hamel battles, being awarded the Military Cross and Bar, and was also mentioned in despatches.

Early in 1917 he was recalled to England to carry out research on the medical aspects of chemical warfare in the experimental station which had been set up at Porton on Salisbury Plain in 1916, and which later became the Chemical Defence Establishment of the Ministry of Defence. Initially the working conditions at Porton were cramped and primitive, and for some months Peters lived in the hut which was used as the physiological laboratory, and had his bath, which was of the round tin type, in the post-mortem room. He spent the rest of the war at Porton working on phosgene, arsenical smokes and mustard gas, and he has said that the experience which he gained there, and the horrifying impact that the advent of ‘gas’ warfare had on him, orientated much of his later work.

In 1918 he returned to his fellowship at Caius where, together with H Hartridge, he studied the effect of pH on interfaces between oil and water. His interest in cell surfaces had been stimulated by his observations while at Porton on changes in the lung alveolar epithelium induced by phosgene and other respiratory irritant gases, and in his Harben lectures in 1929 he put forward some highly original ideas concerning the internal organization of cells which, as is now evident, clearly anticipated the modem concept of the ultrastructure of the cell.

In 1923 he left Cambridge, having been invited to accept the Whitley chair of biochemistry at Oxford. The facilities for biochemistry in Oxford at that time were poor, but in 1925 he obtained a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and in 1926 he and his staff moved into a new and attractive biochemistry laboratory.

Peters next embarked on the research for which he will be best remembered, a study of the ‘anti-neuritic’ vitamin which is capable of curing beri-beri and which was known at that time as vitamin B1. Together with his colleagues he carried out the large scale preparation of active fractions from baker’s yeast, and by 1932 crystalline preparations of high vitamin B1 activity had been obtained.

With the help of these highly purified concentrates he went on to investigate the nature of the underlying damage in the nervous system of the vitamin deficient pigeon, and in 1936, in a lecture that he gave at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London, he concluded that vitamin B1 (thiamine) acts as a co-enzyme for the oxidative removal of pyruvate, one of the degradation products of glucose metabolism, and that, in the absence of the vitamin, pyruvate accumulates in the tissues and in the blood. He had therefore, for the first time, described the way in which a vitamin acts inside the body, and also for the first time the ‘biochemical lesion’ that exists in the tissues of a vitamin deficient animal.

With the outbreak of the second world war Peters was asked to return to chemical warfare problems, and by September 1939 he had recruited an extra-mural team for the Ministry of Supply to work under his direction on the mode of action of vesicant gases (in particular mustard gas and lewisite), with a view to devising specific antidotes to them capable of being used therapeutically. In the case of lewisite this objective was achieved, a highly effective antidote, 2:3-dimercaptopropanol (British Anti-lewisite or BAL) being developed. Peters was at first somewhat sceptical of the ‘dithiol theory’ underlying this discovery which had been put forward by members of his team, but he later took an active part in establishing the value of BAL in the treatment of post-arsphenamine dermatitis and of certain other metal intoxications. He was also at that time engaged in research for the Medical Research Council on the biochemical changes, both local and general, occurring in thermal burns.

Throughout the war, and indeed from 1930 on, Peters was much involved in the work of the Accessory Food Factors Committee of the MRC, and was chairman of this committee, and of a number of its sub-committees, from 1943 to 1954.

After the war he turned his attention to a different toxicological problem, and in a series of elegant and imaginative studies he succeeded in unravelling the mechanism underlying the toxic action of fluoroacetate. This compound, which was known to be highly toxic particularly to the nervous system and the heart, had been shown to be the toxic principle of a South African plant (Dichapetalum cymosum). Peters’ contribution was to show that its toxic action depends on its metabolic conversion inside the body into another compound, fluorocitrate, which then competitively blocks one of the enzymes of the tricarboxylic acid cycle. This is an example of what Peters called a ‘lethal synthesis’ in contrast to the protective syntheses used in many detoxification processes.

In 1954 Peters retired from his chair at Oxford, having been invited by the Agricultural Research Council to become head of the biochemistry department at the ARC Institute of Animal Physiology at Babraham, near Cambridge. Here he continued his work on the toxic action of various fluorine-containing compounds, becoming particularly interested in those plants containing compounds of this type that present a threat to livestock.

When, at the age of 70, Peters finally retired from his post at Babraham, Sir Frank Young FRS at once invited him to join the University department of biochemistry at Cambridge. Here for many years he arrived daily on his bicycle, and carried on an active programme of research supported by grants from a number of sources, particularly the Wellcome Trust. Among other problems he studied, with JM Walshe, the toxicity of copper to brain tissue, and concluded that the toxic action is in part due to reaction of the copper ions with membrane-bound ATPase.

Rudolph Peters was a very distinguished figure in biochemistry and medicine, not only in this country but throughout the world. He was also a man of great personal charm, an inspiring leader and a warm and generous friend. He had a quick, enquiring mind, and a friendly and confiding way with all his colleagues. Under his guidance the biochemistry department at Oxford was a very happy place, and he himself attached much importance to keeping it so. His lectures were exciting and delivered with an enthusiasm which carried his audience with him, and gave them a sense of participating in whatever he was describing.

In addition to his enthusiasm for science, he had from very early years a love for music. He was an accomplished violinist, and throughout his life he found much enjoyment in playing chamber music with his friends, including two of his scientific colleagues, Malcolm Dixon FRS, and Sir Ernst Chain FRS.

He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1935, and was awarded the Royal Medal of the Society in 1949. A knighthood was conferred on him in 1952 in recognition of his many services to science. He was made an honorary fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and of Trinity College, Oxford. He was invited to give many special lectures, including the Croonian lecture of the Royal Society and the Louis Abrahams lecture of the College (1952). The honorary degrees and other honours awarded to him by many universities, colleges and societies both in Britain and overseas reflect the interest which he took in the international aspects of science. He played a central part in bringing into existence the International Union of Biochemistry, he was a founder member of the International Brain Research Organisation, and from 1958 to 1961 he was president of the International Council for Scientific Unions, a post which he filled with great distinction.

In 1917 he married Frances Vérel, who had been at school with his sister and who survived him. They had two sons, the elder of whom is a doctor in Canada and the younger a business man living in Italy.

RHS Thompson

* Elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature.."

† The list of honorary degrees is too lengthy to include in entirety.

[, 1982, 284, 589; Lancet, 1982, 1, 635-6; Times, 2 Feb 1982; Biogr.Mem.Roy.Soc., 1983, 29, 495-523]

(Volume VII, page 460)

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