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Pirie, Norman Wingate (1907-1997)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0117 NWP
Held at: Royal Society
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Full title: Pirie, Norman Wingate (1907-1997)
Date(s): 1926-1999
Level of description: Sub-fonds
Extent: 21 boxes
Name of creator(s): Pirie | Norman Wingate | 1907-1997 | biochemist
Detailed catalogue: Click here to view repository detailed catalogue


Administrative/Biographical history:

Norman Wingate (Bill) Pirie was born in Torrance, Stirlingshire, on 1 July 1907. After attending various schools in Scotland an England he completed his schooling at Rydal School, Colwyn Bay. He entered Emmanuel College Cambridge in 1925 to study for the Natural Science Tripos. Pirie specialised in biochemistry for Part II, attracted by the liveliness of the Biochemistry Department under Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, who had assembled a team of highly talented young biochemists including J B S Haldane, J Needham and D Keilin. He graduated BA in 1929 and was appointed Demonstrator in the Department of Biochemistry and recveived an Emmanuel College research fellowship. For the following five years Pirie worked on the purification of sulphur compounds, studying the chemistry and metabolism of compounds such as methionine and glutathione. In 1932 he began research with ASA (later Sir Ashley) Miles on the bacteria 'Brucella abortus' and 'Brucella mellitensis'. He retained an active interest in this research through the 1930's and 1940's.

In 1934 he began his longstanding collaborative research with the biochemist F C (later Sir Frederick) Bawden, then with the Potato Virus Research Unit in Cambridge, on viruses responsible for potato disease. Their work demonstrated conclusively that the genetic material found in all viruses is ribonucleic acie (RNA) and thus contradicted the view of Wendell Stanley, who had thought the viruses consisted entirely of protein. Bawden and Pirie realized that RNA might be the infective component of viruses but they were unable to confirm this experimentally, and it was not until 1956 that this was established by others. Bawden had moved to the Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, in 1936 and in 1940 Pirie moved there himself, having been appointed Virus Physiologist. He became Head of the Biochemistry Department in 1947.

Pirie's research into plant viruses had intitiated his interest in properties and uses of leaf protein. Wartime food shortages prompted investigative work on the large-scale extraction of leaf protein for human food and tests were undertaken at Rothamsted. After the war Pirie continued this line of research, with support from the Rockefeller and Wolfson Foundations and later, under the International Biological Programme, he worked on methods of extraction. Although the potential of leaves as a human protein source had first been mooted in 1773, the full significance of it was not recognized until the twentieth century. Pirie was the first to develop a practical technology for its extraction. Pirie argued that in many climates more edible protein could be obtained by cultivation of leaf crops than any other form of cultivation. Much of his attention was given to studying suitable plants and to developing equipment for efficient small scale or household production of leaf protein, particularly in the developing world. He was also interested in marketing it as suitable for human consumption through use in recipes.

Pirie was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1949 'for his researches on plant viruses, especially as regards their isolation and their chemical and physical properties. With F C Bawden he was responsible for demonstrating that tobacco mosaic virus and several other plant viruses were nucleoproteins. These two workers were the first to isolate a plant virus in 3 dimensional crystalline form. Much of the recent work on plant viruses has been stimulate4d by these important discoverie. In addition Pirie has worked on the chemistry of antigens and has also concerned himself with the assessment of purity of large molecules of bilogical interest'. Pirie gave the Royal Society Leeuwenhoek Lecture for 1963 and was awarded its Copley Medal in 1971 'in recognition of his distinguished contributions to biochemistry and especially for his elucidation of the nature of plant viruses'. In 1976 he received the first Rank Prize for Nutrition and Agronomy. Pirie died 29 March 1997. His wife, the opthalmologist Antoinettte Pirie with whom he had a son and a daughter, predeceased him in 1991.


Scope and content/abstract:

The collection is particularly noteworthy for its full documentation of all aspects of Pirie's research, development and promotion of leaf protein for human comsumption. It is divided into the following sections:

Section A, Biographical. It includes obituaries, a copy of the Royal Society Biographical Memoir, a little documentation of undergraduate work, and historical material assembled by Pirie relating to J Brachel, J B S Haldane, F G Hopklins, and H H Mann. Miscellaneous material includes Pirie's philosophical notes on the nature of life the scientific method and other topics.

Section B, Research notebooks. These complete the sequence of numbered notebooks listed in the 'Catalogue of the Papers of Sir Frederick Charles Bawden including the papers of Alfred Alexander, Peter Kleczkowski and Norman Wingate Pirie' and also deposited in the Archives of the Royal Society. The sequence presented here runs from 1929-1996, with the missing notebooks to be found in the Bawden collection. The work documented includes Pirie's earliest research with A A Miles on 'Brucella abortus' and 'Brucella mellitensis', his research with F C Bawden on viruses, and the many facets of his work on leaf protein to the end of his life. There are also two numbered notebooks not included in the sequence which date from the 1940s.

Section C, Leaf Protein work. This is the largest section in the collection and documents the work for which Pirie became widely known. The material comers Pirie's own research work on leaf protein, his interest in leaf protein work worldwide, the promotion of leaf protein and the development of equipment, especially suitable for use in less developed countries, which could be used to extract it. There is documentation of Pirie's struggles within the Agricultural Research Council to find support for his work, his reports on progress and later fund raising for his reasearch. There is material relating to design and construction of leaf protein apparatus of various types. Pirie believed strongly that leaf protein could make a positive contribution to nutrition in poorer countries and trials were undertaken in India, Jamaica and other countries. Latterly he found backing for his work from the 'Find Your Feet' charity and this relationship is documented. Also of interest is Pirie's interest in promoting leaf protein, including sample recipes using the foodstuff.

Section D, Other Research interests. This focuses on Pirie's earlier research, including the work for which he was elected to the Royal Society and was awarded the Copley Medal. It is not extensive and should be consulted alongside the notebooks in Section B. It is presented by topic and includes research on tobacco mosaic and tomato bushy stunt viruses by Pirie and F C Bawden in the 1930's, work on 'Brucella abortus' in the 1930's and 1940's and bracken extraction in the 1950's. There is also material relating to various alternative sources of protein, including seafood, which relates to this interest in nutrition. Miscellaneous material includes documentation of Pirie's lobbying on behalf of 'biochemical engineering' research in the 1950's.

Section E, Drafts and Publications. This presents drafts and related material including publication on food resources and his 1987 book 'Leaf Protein and its by-products in human and animal nutrition', a small number of book reviews and a little editorial correspondence. The bulk of the section, however, comprises a sequence of Pirie's volumes of bound offprints, from 1929 to 1991 (with material for 1992-1996 unbound). This sequence is more than just a full record of Pirie's published work output, as intercalated or pasted to pages of the volumes are typescripts of unpublished work or work not published in full, reports on research, visits abroad etc, correspondence, and letters to the press on a wide variety of topics including nuclear weapons, the Communist Party, space exploration, scientific writing and world nutrition. The offprints themselves may bear later manuscript annotations and typescript notes by Pirtie, giving improved methods, corrections and later bibliographical references.

Section F, Visits and Conferences. These document a few of Pirie's visits 1946-1989. There is material relating to extended visits to the USA in 1946, to Czechoslovakia, the USSR and China in 1952, and later visits in connection with leaf protein work. The lack of coverage is partially compensated for by the quality of some of the documentation of the visits, including Pirie's manuscript and typescript notes and his official reports.

Section G, Correspondence. This is again partial in its coverage. The bulk relates to Pirie's work on leaf protein. There are also individual letters from significant correspondents, from the 1930's on, including A Szent-George, J B S Haldane, G C de Hervey, Sir Peter Medawar, T Svendberg, R L M Synge etc, which Piries appears to have kept for historical reasons. The correspondence is presented in alphabetical order by correspondent.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

As set out above in Scope and Content.

Conditions governing access:


Conditions governing reproduction:

No publication without written permission. Apply to Archivist in the first instance.

Finding aids:

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Allied Materials

Related material:

Bawden Papers at Royal Society, reference FB; a videotape interview with Pirie for the Biochemical Society is held in the Biochemical Society Archives.

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Copied from the Royal Society catalogue by Sarah Drewery.

Rules or conventions:
General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal Place and Corporate Names 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
Feb 2009.

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