13 December 2022

1952 Nobel Medal for Chemistry is being sold by his family

The Nobel Prize medal awarded to the astonishing and inspiring chemist Archer Martin in 1952 will be sold by Noonans on Thursday, February 2, 2023 in a sale of Coins and Historical Medals. It is being sold by his family and expected to fetch £100,000-150,000.

As Peter Preston-Morley, Special Projects Director in the Coins department at Noonans commented: ”Archer Martin was a brilliant scientist whose discoveries led to extraordinary advances in medicine and other fields and won him the
Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1952, but cruelly could not help his own mental decline. He was a fearless guinea pig for drug testing to transform the lives of Alzheimer’s sufferers and delighted researchers when his condition improved.”

The public first became aware of Archer’s genius when he shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1952 with Richard Synge for their ground-breaking invention of Partition Chromatography, an effective method of separating compound elements that had far-reaching implications for analytical chemistry.

Archer’s singular intellect and approach to life were evident from childhood. Unable to read at the age of nine, the breakthrough came when he was given a book about batteries and couldn’t find anyone in the household to read it to him. He realised he could decode it and became a competent reader.

Archer suffered with stomach ulcers. During the War he was allowed extra milk as an anti-inflammatory. When his ulcer became very troublesome in later life, he was puzzled that milk then proved ineffective. Learning that pasteurisation methods had changed, he experimented with unpasteurised milk but was annoyed to find himself putting on weight. He decided to separate the milk and found the active ingredient in the whey, which he could then concentrate. He persuaded various companies to test the extract which they found effective at calming inflammation. He demonstrated this himself by burning his arms with cigarettes, but they refused to invest in his discovery because, whey being a natural product, it could not be patented.

He suffered intermittently from depression. On reading
Not All In The Mind by William Sargant – one of his daughter’s university textbooks – on the treatment of shell shock, he consulted Sargant and was prescribed Monoamine oxidase inhibitors which he found very effective.

He also suffered with Restless Leg Syndrome and wondered whether modern sleeping arrangements might be the cause. Archer allied himself in many ways with primitive man, believing there had been too little time for evolution to have caused significant change. He reasoned that early man must have slept beside a fire at night, with one side heated and the other chilled, and must have turned over as needed. He tested this by spending several nights lying on the hearthrug in front of his bedroom gas fire, but to no positive effect.

By contrast, one of the most successful experiments he took part in was when he was the patient rather than the researcher in a trial involving the THA (
Tetrahydroaminoacridine) drug for Alzheimer’s Disease.

Early absentmindedness hinted at the dementia that was to blight his later life. As the condition developed it is thought to have cost him his life-long post as a professor at the University of Houston after he produced only a couple of minor papers rather than the more regular output expected. A subsequent tenure in Switzerland proved no better when he repeated failed experiments after forgetting that he had done them before, and he was left unable to study because he immediately forgot what he had just read.

As a talented linguist, Archer lost his ability to understand French, while confusing German and Dutch. He missed appointments and would set out for award ceremonies only to forget where he was going. A particular low point came when he wrecked his wife’s car driving furiously out of their driveway, and he never drove again.

Despair turned to hope when he became one of the first volunteers for the THA trial, with astonishing results. After just a short course of the drug, not only was Archer able to discuss the possible effects coherently, but he also managed to criticise research proposals shared with him by a colleague. Damage to his liver meant that he had to have a break from the drugs.

education with his elder son Paul, he said that in an ideal world he would have created clones of his children so that he could send one set each to very different schools to properly evaluate their relative effectiveness (he had hated his own schooldays). “He taught me more than any of the schools I went to as we grew up amidst his workshops and laboratories, and always was willing and able to answer any technical question I could devise. At age six he gave me a lesson in oxyacetylene welding,” said Paul.

Archer’s scientific legacy remains widespread today. Chromatography is a technique for separating components in a substance. Many specialised types have been developed for specific purposes and are essential tools for the life science industries. These include testing for drugs in blood, urine and breath, and the development of new drugs. They are used in the development of vaccines and their purification. In food production they analyse ingredients, toxic impurities, pesticide residues. They are relied upon for detection of pollutants in the environment, in soil, water and air.

Archer, a teetotaller, was amused to realise his work had made possible the breathalyser.

The Nobel Prize was his most distinguished award, but by no means the only one that will be offered by Noonans in February. The full list is as follows: Nobel Laureate for Chemistry (1952), Japanese Order of the Rising Sun (1972), The Companion of the British Empire (1960), The Royal Society Leverhulme Medal (1963), The John Scott Award (1958), The Merck Connecticut University Randolph Major Medal (1979), The Mikhail Tswett Medal (1976), The Callendar Medal (1971), The Franklin Institute Medal / John Price Wetherill Medal (1959), The Fritz Pregl Medal (1985), The Jacobus Berzelius Medal of the Swedish Medical Society (1951), The John Price Wetherall Medal / Franklin Institute (1959), The Kolthoff Medal (1969).

Archer John Porter Martin, CBE, FRS (1910-2002), b. London; educ. Oaklands School Crouch End, Bedford School and Peterhouse, Cambridge; researcher at Dunn Nutritional Laboratory, Cambridge, 1933-8; moved to Leeds to work at the Wool Industries Research Association, Headingley, where, with Richard Synge, he invented partition chromatography, one of the most powerful analytical techniques ever developed for separating and identifying the components of complex mixtures, their invention in 1944 arising from research on analysing the amino acid components of wool fibre; director of biochemical research at Boots, Nottingham, 1946-8; Medical Research Council, Lister Institute, Mill Hill, London, 1948-57, appointed head 1952; FRS 1950; purchased Abbotsbury House, Elstree, with his Nobel prize money, establishing Abbotsbury Laboratories Ltd, 1959; CBE 1960; consultant to Wellcome Medical Research, Beckenham, 1970-3; professorial appointments at the University of Sussex 1973-4, Houston University 1974-9 and the Eìcole Polytechnique, Lausanne, 1979-80; retired to Llangarron, Herefordshire.

Recent Nobel Prize Medals sold include:
Dimitry Muratov, Nobel Peace Prize for 2021 ($103.5m, June 2022); Walter Kohn, Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1998, ($457,531, January 2022).

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