Barton, Derek (1918-1998), a British chemist, investigated natural organic compounds. He carried out research into conformational analysis, a method to study the three-dimensional shapes of molecules. Barton demonstrated how the shape of a molecule affects its physical and chemical properties. Conformational analysis gives scientists a tool to interpret chemical information and has proven useful in solving biochemical problems, especially in the area of pharmacology. For his groundbreaking findings, Barton shared the 1969 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Norwegian Odd Hassel .
Derek Harold Richard Barton was born to William Thomas Barton and Maude Barton. Barton's father owned a successful lumberyard and was able to send his son to private school. Barton excelled in his classes at Tonbridge School, but his education ended abruptly when he was 17 and his father died. Barton dropped out of school without having received his diploma to assist his mother with the family business. But after two years, he became bored and returned to school. He enrolled at Gillingham Technical College, which he attended for a year before transferring to Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London. To make financial ends meet, Barton commuted four hours a day to save money on living expenses. Barton received a B.S. degree from Imperial College of Science and Technology, London University in 1940.
Working under the supervision of prominent organic chemists, Ian Morris Heilborn and Ewart R. H. Jones, Barton earned his doctorate degree in organic chemistry in only two years. At the time, World War II (1939-1945) was being fought across Europe but Barton was unable to serve in active duty due to a minor heart defect. Instead, he was recruited to work in military intelligence. Staying on at Imperial College, Barton spent two years researching inks that could be used by the military for secret communication. In addition to his regular duties, Barton volunteered for an assignment to raise 10,000 beetles and study their chemical excretions.
In 1944, Barton accepted a position as a research chemist for an industrial firm in Birmingham, but he returned to Imperial College a year later as an assistant lecturer in chemistry. Initially, Barton taught inorganic and physical chemistry but switched to organic chemistry when a position opened. Between 1946 and 1949, he received a fellowship that allowed him to investigate the structures of organic molecules, including steroids. Steroids are a group of chemical compounds, including hormones, that play key roles in body processes. In the course of his studies, Barton designed models that accurately depicted the geometry of the steroid molecules. Barton used these models to explain the three-dimensional geometry of steroids. For this line of research, Barton earned a second doctorate in 1949.
In the late 1940's, Louis Fieser, a professor of organic chemistry at Harvard University and a leading expert on steroids, became aware of Barton's work and invited the English scientist to spend a year as a visiting lecturer. While at Harvard, Barton investigated the relationship between the reaction rates of steroids and the physical structure of their molecules. He wrote a four-page paper and submitted it to Experientia, a Swiss journal with a modest circulation. The paper, published in 1950, outlined Barton's findings on conformational analysis, which served as the basis for his Nobel Prize.
For his study of steroids, Barton built on the work of Odd Hassel, a Norwegian chemist. Hassel had investigated the geometry of compounds with six carbon atoms, whose basic shape is a ring pattern. When a six-carbon ring is twisted, it can assume a shape that looks like a boat or a chair. Hassel demonstrated that when a six-carbon ring is at rest, it prefers the chair configuration because it is an energy-efficient configuration. Barton expanded Hassel's findings to the study of more complex molecules and was able to describe why some molecular arrangements are more stable than others.
Before the publication of Barton's paper, scientists had known about three-dimensional molecular structure but did not fully understand it. Consequently, they viewed molecules as two-dimensional. Adding a third dimension led to a greater understanding of molecular interactions. Barton's paper gave scientists a powerful research aid. His principles soon became a standard part of the basic curriculum in undergraduate organic chemistry classes.
After a year at Harvard, Barton returned to England and became a reader and then a professor of organic chemistry at Birkbeck College, University of London. In 1955, he left London to accept a job as regius professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow. Two years later, he joined the faculty at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London and served as a professor of organic chemistry until 1970 and then as Hoffmann professor of organic chemistry from 1970 until his retirement in 1978.
In 1977, Barton moved to Gif-sur-Yvette, France, to assume the duties as director of research at the Institute for the Chemistry of Natural Substances. In 1986, Barton left France to accept an appointment as distinguished professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where he remained until his death in 1998.
Although Barton pioneered conformational analysis, he was active in a number of other areas. He investigated many natural chemicals, including morphine. He devised a method to successfully synthesize aldostrene, a hormone that helps to regulate kidney function. He also focused much of his research on inventing methods to produce new reactions. As a result, five chemical reactions are named in his honor. Although his research interests were varied, Barton stayed current with scientific developments by reading literature and staying in contact with other chemists. He also worked closely with his research assistants, checking their progress on a regular basis.
Barton had a long and distinguished career. In recognition of his achievements to the field of chemistry, he received many honors and awards, including the Corday-Morgan Medal of the Chemical Society of London (1951), the Fritzsche Award (1956), the Roger Adams Award of the American Chemical Society (1959), the Davy Medal of the Royal Society (1961), and the Royal Medal (1972). In 1995, he became the first faculty member from Texas A&M to win the Priestley Medal of the American Chemical Society. Barton was a fellow of the Royal Society and a foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He held honorary degrees from several universities, including Columbia and Oxford. In 1972, Barton was knighted.
Barton enjoyed speaking and traveled across the United States giving lectures and seminars. Barton was also a prolific author, writing over 1,000 scientific articles and books.
Barton married Jeanne Kate Wilkins in 1944 and the couple had a son. The marriage ended in divorce. Barton's second wife was Christiane Cognet, a professor at the Lycée Français de Londres, who died in 1994. Barton was survived by his third wife, Judith Cobb Barton.