Haworth, Walter Norman (1883-1950), a British chemist, shared the 1937 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research on carbohydrates and vitamin C.
Haworth was born on March 19, 1883, in Chorley, England. He attended school through the age of 14 and then went to work in his father's linoleum factory. In learning how linoleum was made, Haworth gained his first exposure to chemistry, the field that would be his lifelong interest.
Haworth's parents wanted him to stay in the family business, and they refused to pay for any further education for him. Haworth studied with a private tutor so that he could pass the entrance examination to Manchester University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1906. After graduation, Haworth stayed at the university to work as an assistant to William Perkin, head of the chemistry department. The two men studied terpenes, yellowish, oily organic compounds.
In 1909, Haworth received a scholarship to the University of Göttingen in Germany. His teacher there was Otto Wallach, an expert on terpenes and the winner of the 1910 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in the field of alicyclic compounds. Haworth received a doctorate from the university in 1910. He then returned to the University of Manchester and received a second doctorate in 1911.
From 1911 to 1912, Haworth served as senior demonstrator at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. In 1912, he became lecturer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. There he met the English scientists Thomas Purdie and James Colquhoun Irvine, who were working in the new field of carbohydrate chemistry. Carbohydrates are one of the three main classes of nutrients that provide energy to the body. The other two classes are fats and proteins. Haworth gave up his work on terpenes to join this new field and study the molecular structure of carbohydrates.
World War I (1914–1918) forced Haworth and many other scientists to put their research on hold. During the war, Haworth, at the St. Andrews laboratories supervised the British government's production of drugs and chemicals that had military value.
After the war, Haworth returned to his studies of carbohydrates and to teaching. From 1920 to 1925, he was professor of organic chemistry at the University of Durham, and from 1925 to 1948, he was Mason Professor of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham. Throughout the 1920's and early 1930's, Haworth conducted intensive research on carbohydrates. Carbohydrates include all sugars and starches and are the main source of energy for animals and plants. All carbohydrates are made up of some combination of the chemical elements carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Haworth began his work with the simple carbohydrates, which have a simple molecular structure composed of “building blocks” called saccharides .
He first studied the simple sugars called mono-saccharides, which consist of only one saccharide. Among the most important of these monosaccharides is glucose, a mildly sweet sugar in the blood. In 1926, Haworth determined the chemical formula for glucose. He represented the structure in a three-dimensional model now known as the Haworth formula or Haworth projection .
Haworth next studied disaccharides, simple sugars that consist of two saccharides. He determined the chemical formulas of sucrose, or table sugar, and lactose, a sugar found in cow's milk. Haworth explained his findings in the book The Constitution of Sugars, published in 1929.
In 1932, Hungarian physicist Albert Szent-Györgyi discovered a substance in orange juice and named it hexuronic acid. Haworth determined the molecular structure of the substance and renamed the substance ascorbic acid, which means “antiscurvy acid,” because it was known to prevent or cure the disease scurvy. This substance is also known today as vitamin C. In 1933, Haworth led a team of scientists that synthesized ascorbic acid—that is, they reproduced it in the laboratory from chemicals. It was the first time that a vitamin had been produced synthetically.
Haworth's accomplishments in his studies of carbohydrates and vitamin C earned him a share of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1937. The Swiss chemist Paul Karrer also was given a share of the prize for his research on carotenoids, flavins, and vitamins A and B2.
Haworth also received many other awards and honors. In 1928, he was elected to the Royal Society, the leading scientific organization in the United Kingdom. He was knighted in the late 1940's. Haworth died of a heart attack on his 67th birthday, March 19, 1950, at his home in Birmingham.