Fonds SYNG - Papers of Richard Synge

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Reference code



Papers of Richard Synge


  • 1892-1996 (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

About 1700 items

Context area

Name of creator


Biographical history

Richard Laurence Millington Synge was born in Liverpool on 28 October 1914. He was educated at Old Hall Preparatory School, Wellington, Shropshire and Winchester College before being awarded an exhibition in classics to Trinity College Cambridge in 1931. However, Synge switched from classics to science prior to taking up his place at Trinity College in 1933, and he graduated with a Double First in the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1936. After graduation Synge remained in Cambridge, studying in the Department of Biochemistry under the supervision of N.W. Pirie. He researched on protein analysis, in particular the separation of acetyl-amino acids. Contemporary techniques for separating biological substances into its component chemicals were insufficient for Synge's needs and in 1938 he contacted A.J.P. Martin, also working in Cambridge, who had devised apparatus for the extraction of vitamin E. Synge, with the support of the Australian biochemist H.R. Marston, was given a studentship from the International Wool Secretariat for joint research with Martin and they collaborated to build more a sophisticated apparatus for separation of amino acids by extraction techniques.

In 1938 Martin moved to the Wool Industries Research Association Laboratories in Leeds. He was followed shortly thereafter by Synge whose studentship was transferred to Leeds. Following the award of his Ph.D. in 1940, Synge was appointed Biochemist to the Wool Industries Research Association. Synge and Martin continued their joint work developing their ideas for amino acid separation and in May 1941, using a silica gel column, they demonstrated that partition chromatography could work in practice. This allowed complex biochemical substances to be broken down and analysed with a facility impossible with previous chemical techniques. Over the next few years Synge and Martin worked to find a more versatile medium than silica gel and developed the filter paper chromatograph. For their invention of the technique of partition chromatography, an achievement that transformed the area of science that would come to be known as molecular biology, Synge and Martin were awarded the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1952.

In 1943, in order to work in an area with more relevance to the war effort, Synge joined the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London. He researched on the chemistry of the antibiotic polypeptides of the gramicidin-tyrocidine group. During this period good relations with the USSR meant that samples of the antibiotic gramicidin S were made available. In 1945 using paper chromatography Synge established the sequence of the amino acids in gramicidin S. For the period August 1946 - May 1947 Synge worked at the laboratory of Arne Tiselius in the Fysikalisk-Kemiska Institution, Uppsala, Sweden.

Synge left the Lister Institute in 1948 so that he could work on more immediately practical aspects of biochemistry and was given a post at the Rowett Research Institute, based in Aberdeen. He headed the Department of Protein and Carbohydrate Chemistry (later the Department of Protein and Lipid Chemistry, then the Department of Protein Chemistry). In 1965 Synge was appointed Deputy Director of the Institute. His research concentrated on the digestion of proteins, chiefly though not exclusively leaf proteins.

During his time at the Rowett Research Institute Synge made a number of extended visits abroad. In 1958 he was invited to New Zealand by the New Zealand Department of Agriculture to help in investigating the cause and possible cure of facial eczema in sheep. He arrived in November 1958 and spent several months working with E.P. White on isolating and studying the poisonous fungus Sporidesmium bakeri. In 1965 and 1966 Synge visited India, on both occasions as a guest of the Indian Statistical Institute, studying problems of tropical agriculture. He returned for a shorter visit in 1970.

Synge worked at the Rowett Research Institute until 1967 when he joined the Agricultural Research Council's new Food Research Institute in Norwich. S.R. Elsden, his former colleague from the Cambridge Biochemistry Department, was Director of the Institute. Here Synge worked on the combination of phenolic compounds of plants with proteins and also, in a rather new area, problems relating to the electronic storage and retrieval of information on the structure of organic chemical compounds. In 1968 Synge was appointed Honorary Professor of Biology at the University of East Anglia, a post he held until 1984. Synge retired from the Institute in 1976 but continued to research until his death on 18 August 1994.

Synge was elected to the Fellowships of the Royal Society in 1950 and two years later he and Martin were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their invention of partition chromatography. Among other honours, he was made a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge in 1972.

Synge was on the political Left and in the 1930s and 1940s was a member of the Communist Party. This led to him being refused entry to the United States in 1949. In his later life he was active in the peace movement, as a member of the organisation Scientists Against Nuclear Arms and

R.L.M. and Ann Synge had eight children: Jane (born 11 April 1943), Elizabeth (3 May 1944), Thomas Millington (6 September 1945, died in childhood), Matthew Millington (25 January 1948), Patrick Millington (7 January 1951), Alexander Millington (29 May 1953), Charlotte and Mary (18 June 1955).

Archival history

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

The papers were received from Dr Ann Synge (widow) in May 1996 and from Dr Elizabeth Smith and Dr Charlotte Synge (daughters) in August and September 1997. A small quantity of additional material was received from Dr Charlotte Synge, daughter of R. L. M. Synge, in Nov, 2004, and placed in Trinity College Library in Feb. 2005.

Content and structure area

Scope and content

This large collection is uneven in its coverage but papers survive from all phases of Synge's life and career.

Section A, Biographical, is extensive. The personal material includes pocket diaries 1926, 1945-1992. There are records of Synge's childhood in the form of school work, reports and printed material, and of his time as an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge, principally his lecture notes and work sheets. Documentation of Synge's later career, honours and awards is patchy but there is material relating to the award of the 1952 Nobel prize for Chemistry to Synge and A.J.P. Martin. There is much family material, including correspondence between his parents during their courtship and after their marriage, and their correspondence with him, including many letters during Synge's time at Old Hall School, Winchester College and Trinity College. Family material also includes correspondence with his wife Ann and his sisters Anthea and Katharine. Synge's political interests are not particularly well documented although there is material relating to the Communist Party in the 1940s, the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR 1946-1955 and to his later links with the peace movement including Scientists Against Nuclear Arms 1981-1991. The section also includes many photographs.

Section B, Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, is slight. It includes correspondence and papers relating to Synge's appointment including his statement of proposed work, inventories of equipment and chemicals, and miscellaneous administrative material. There are also papers relating to Synge's visit to Tiselius's laboratory at the Fysikalisk-Kemiska Institution in Uppsala, Sweden.

Section C, Rowett Research Institute, presents documentation of Synge's appointment to the Institute, his headship of the Department of Protein and Carbohydrate Chemistry - including research programmes, equipment and staff, the Agricultural Research Council Visiting Groups to the Institute, and administrative material including sets of Institute notices and circulars. There is also material relating to the Institute's Strathcona Club of which Synge was a loyal member, and a little memorabilia.

Section D, Food Research Institute, is not extensive. It includes correspondence and papers relating to Synge's appointment including his plan of research, comments on Lord Rothschild's 1971 Green Paper A Framework for Government Research and Development, administrative papers from the Chemistry Division, and project reports on Synge's research.

Section E, Research, comprises notebooks and research notes. The notebooks document Synge's research from postgraduate studies in the mid 1930s, through work for the Wool Industries Research Association in Leeds - including the invention and development of partition chromatography, the Lister Institute, Rowett Research Institute and Food Research Institute, to post-retirement work in the 1990s on electronic storage of chemical information. The bulk of the notebooks forms a sequence I-XXVII running from 1938 to ca 1979. There are also notebooks used for references from searches of the Science Citation Index and notebooks used by three collaborators, J.C. Wood, M.A. Youngson and S. Matai. The research notes cover the period 1938-1987. They include reports on work on proteins for the Wool Industries Research Association 1938-1943, wartime work on grass protein 1939-1943 and gramicidin S 1944-1946, studies on the nutritive value of by-products of the herring industry 1949-1951, and papers relating to computer searching for chemical information searches 1981.

Section F, Publications, lectures and broadcasts, documents some of Synge's scientific publications 1940-1992, public lectures 1942-1983 and broadcasts 1947-1961. The publications material is not comprehensive. There are relatively few drafts of Synge's biochemistry publications and the best documented work is Synge's 1990 article '25 years of Science Citation Index - some experiences'. There are translations of articles in the Soviet scientific literature on gramicidin S and correspondence and papers relating to the possible translation from the Russian of Mikhail Semenovich Tsvet 1872-1919 by E.M. Senchenkova. There is also editorial correspondence. Lectures material includes documentation of some of the many public and invitation lectures Synge gave to local and university branches of learned societies and professional associations. They include his 1951 Second P.F. Frankland Memorial Lecture, 'Biological aspects of proteins in the light of recent chemical studies' to the Royal Institute of Chemistry and the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Again, there are few drafts, the bulk of the material is correspondence regarding arrangements. The section also includes drafts found in Synge's two folders inscribed `Unpublished etc' including book reviews and drafts on the history of science, and a set of the collected off-prints of Synge's published work. References to Synge's publications in this catalogue refer to the List of Publications at A/1 and appear in the form Bibliog. ...

Section G, Visits, conferences and travel, covers the period 1945-1992. The most extensively documented visit is Synge's extended stay in New Zealand 1958-1959. There is correspondence relating to arrangements, documentation of Synge's research and material relating to other engagements fulfilled during his stay. There is also material relating to the return journey, including travel on the Trans-Siberian railway. Other visits for which significant documentation survives are the 1955 International Wool Textile Research Conference in Australia, the International Symposium on the Origins of the Earth, Moscow, USSR, 1957, Synge's visits to India as a guest of the Indian Statistical Institute in 1965, 1966 and 1970, and his visit to Cuba in May 1969. There is also material relating to Synge's award of the Nobel Prize. He attended gatherings of Nobel laureates at Lindau, West Germany on several occasions and returned to Stockholm for other Nobel-related events. Synge often took his family on his visits and this is sometimes reflected in the material.

Section H, Societies and organisations, documents Synge's involvement with 24 UK and overseas organisations from ca 1936 to 1993. There is material relating to the Agricultural Research Council, principally the Ruminant Metabolism Group 1949-1953 and N.W. Pirie's proposals for research on the extraction of leaf protein 1951-1953. Also well-documented is the Association of Scientific Workers 1938-1966. Synge was an enthusiastic supporter of the Association and served as a Vice-President from 1954. Other bodies for which there is significant material are the Biochemical Society - Synge served on the Editorial Board of the Biochemical Journal 1949-1955, the British Nutrition Foundation - Synge was a scientific governor of the Foundation 1974-1979, the Royal Society, and the Royal Society of Chemistry - particularly relating to its Chemical Information Group, 1984-1987.

Section J, Correspondence, is substantial and important. There is a main sequence of principal correspondents including A.C. Chibnall, S.R. Elsden, Hugh Gordon, Dorothy Hodgkin, J.H. Humphrey, H.R. Marston, A.J.P. Martin, Stanford Moore, N.W. Pirie, P.L. Robinson, F. Sanger and Arne Tiselius. There is also a chronological sequence of shorter scientific correspondence, requests for off-prints, and references and recommendations.

Appraisal, destruction and scheduling


System of arrangement

Conditions of access and use area

Conditions governing access

Not all the material in this collection may yet be available for consultation. Enquiries should be addressed in the first instance to:

The Archivist
Trinity College Library

Conditions governing reproduction

Language of material

  • English
  • French
  • German
  • Italian
  • Russian
  • Spanish
  • Swedish

Script of material

    Language and script notes

    Physical characteristics and technical requirements

    Finding aids

    A detailed catalogue of the archive produced by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists can be consulted at Trinity College Library Cambridge. This catalogue entry copies much of its content from that catalogue. A digital version is accessible via the National Archives' Discovery website:

    Allied materials area

    Existence and location of originals

    Existence and location of copies

    Related units of description

    Correspondence from Synge to Pamela L. Robinson is held with the Robinson papers at the Palaeontology Library, Natural History Museum, London.

    Synge's Winchester College Senior Science Prize project, `Experiment on the Viscosity of Gases', 1932, is held in Winchester College archives.

    A facsimile letter from Charles Darwin to George Rolleston dated 1876, found with the papers, has been added to the files of the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University Library.

    Dr R.W.A. Oliver, Honorary Archivist of the Biochemical Society, has arranged for the deposit of Synge's chemicals and apparatus with the Biochemical Society, London.

    Notes area


    Compiled by: Timothy E. Powell, Peter Harper, Adrian Nardone and Alan Hayward

    The work of the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists, and the production of this catalogue, are made possible by the support of the following societies and organisations:

    The Biochemical Society

    The Geological Society

    The Higher Education Funding Council for England

    The Institute of Physics

    The Royal Society

    The Wellcome Trust

    We are very grateful to Dr Ann Synge, Dr Elizabeth Smith and Dr Charlotte Synge for making the material available and to Dr S.R. Elsden and Dr Smith for their advice and encouragement.

    Alternative identifier(s)


    NCUACS 73.2.98

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        Archivist's note

        The current record was created using the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists finding aid, and was edited by Rebecca Hughes in 2021

        Accession area