Anthony Trafford James

A.T. James

Anthony Trafford James was born in 1922 in Cardiff at the time of severe economic depression and unemployment in South Wales. His parents, struggling to find work, moved to London in 1929. Their hard work and persistence ensured that Tony had a good education; when he left primary school, it was clear that he possessed a good brain and had inherited his parents’ gritty determination to better himself. At University College School he became interested in chemistry and was inspired by “a brilliant lecture” he attended and by his parents’ gift of a chemistry set.

Realizing the sacrifices his parents were making, Tony chose to leave school at 16 to contribute to the family income. He joined the Kodak Company, where he learned practical laboratory skills. Working in his spare time, he gained an intermediate BSc at the Northern Polytechnic and in 1940 obtained a London County Council scholarship to enrol in the Chemistry Department at University College London, at that time evacuated to Aberystwyth. He emerged with a first-class honours degree in 1943 and spent the next 3 years researching for his PhD with C.K. Ingold and E.D. Hughes on mechanisms of nitrosation and dealkylation of aromatic amines. During his time at Aberystwyth he became much involved in student politics, nationally and internationally and was, for a time, a member of the Communist Party. This lasted for 12 years before disillusionment set in. He had to choose between a career in politics or science. Science won because, he claimed: “science was more likely to bring about better standards of living than politics”: a view that he never lost. While at Aberystwyth, he found time to marry Olga Clayton, the Assistant Secretary of the National Union of Students, of which he was President.

While subsequently working at Bedford College on the synthesis of antimalarials, a growing interest in the biological aspects of chemistry led Tony to take an evening course in biochemistry at Chelsea Polytechnic in 1946. The following year, he moved to the Lister Institute for a very productive period with R.L.M. Synge, from whom he learned much about chromatography. At the Lister, Tony met A.J.P. Martin, who was to have a profound effect on his career. They first encountered each other in the cold room, where Tony was laboriously collecting fractions of unstable compounds from a chromatography column. Martin immediately set out to build the first ever automatic fraction collector, thus beginning a most productive partnership and friendship. When, soon afterwards, Martin moved to the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), Mill Hill, Tony went with him. Martin and Synge’s classic paper [1] that led to their Nobel Prize for chromatography in 1952, ended with the significant statement: “The mobile phase need not be a liquid but may be a vapour. By means of this, refined separations may be carried out”. This suggestion had lain dormant for 10 years and Martin suggested that Tony should take up the challenge.

They aimed to separate a mixture of volatile fatty acids (VFA), as a colleague, George Pojak, was studying their biosynthesis in mammary gland. Initial results were disappointing as, whatever they did, there was poor separation of the components. They turned their attention to volatile bases and chose a mixture of ammonia and mono-, di- and tri-methyl amines. There was a perfect separation, demonstrating the feasibility of gas-liquid chromatography (GLC). Returning to the VFA, they discovered that the poor separations were caused by dimerization in the high-concentration part of the zones. The problem was solved by adding a long-chain fatty acid to the stationary phase, swamping out the concentration effect and allowing a clear separation of the zones. The classic paper [2] describing separation of a range of fatty acids from formic to dodecanoic was published in the Biochemical Journal in 1952.

There followed painstaking work improving the detection system and examining the separation of other volatile compounds, such as petroleum mixtures, which brought them into contact with industry. These developments were well described by Tony in the 1995 review republished here [3]. Soon Tony was developing collaborations throughout the world. These included wide ranging studies of lipid composition, including human milk, VFA metabolism in ruminants, the lipid composition of faecal fat in cases of fat malabsorption, blood lipids in healthy subjects and patients with coronary artery disease. The human studies almost always involved the influence of dietary change and laid the foundations for Tony’s interest in human nutrition. A preliminary study of the incorporation of 14C-labelled acetate into leaves was the beginning of Tony’s pre-eminence in studies of plant lipids. After Martin left Mill Hill, Tony was engaged in productive studies with James Lovelock on lipid involvement in heart disease. Yet despite this happy collaboration, he became restless because conditions at NIMR did not allow the expansion that he craved. While at NIMR he had become an unpaid consultant for Unilever and when the Company offered him laboratory space for a group of twelve scientists, with a remit to do research of his own choosing and a salary twice that which he received from the MRC, he felt this was an offer he could not refuse.

Tony set up his Lipid Biosynthesis Group at the Unilever Research Laboratory, Colworth House in 1962. For the rest of the decade, this laboratory was a world centre for research on the metabolism of plant lipids and, in particular, the mechanism by which double bonds were introduced into fatty acyl chains. The continuing development of analytical techniques accompanied fundamental studies on metabolic pathways and enzymic mechanisms. Studies of substrate specificity and the stereochemistry of double bond formation were particularly important. Work at Colworth established that in plants the conversion of oleic into linoleic acid involved the direct desaturation of oleic acid linked as an oxygen-ester to a phospholipid rather than the classic pathway that required Coenzyme A thiol-esters of the fatty acids as substrates. Later work extended to animal species with the partial purification of the stearoyl-CoA desaturase and studies of the control of desaturation by dietary fatty acids.

Towards the end of the 1960s, the Company sent Tony on a course at Harvard Business School and it was clear that he was earmarked for greater managerial and administrative responsibilities that took him away from bench research, although he always maintained close contact with his bench scientists. He became head of a large Biosciences Division that encompassed basic research in carbohydrates, proteins, water structure and various aspects of biotechnology, including a large programme on the propagation of oil palm plantlets by tissue culture that was later commercialized in Malaysian plantations. He soon became a member of the Laboratory’s Executive Committee with responsibility for the administration of funds earmarked for fundamental research as well as the co-ordination of the company’s interests in chemicals, foods and safety evaluation at an international level.

Once he had established his research facility at Colworth in 1962, Tony was keen to foster links between academia and industry and was appointed Professor of Industrial Chemistry at Loughborough University and co-authored the first student text book dedicated to lipid biochemistry [4]. He contributed hugely to the Biochemical Society, of which he became an honorary member. He was instrumental in Unilever’s sponsorship of the Society’s Colworth Medal and of its Unilever European Fellowships. He was a founder member of the Biochemical Society Lipid Group and of the International Conferences on the Biochemistry of Lipids, of which he was president for many years. During the 1970s and 80s he became much involved in national science policy and worked extensively for the Science and Engineering Research Council and the Agricultural Research Council. He had strong views on the need to break down barriers between the responsibilities of the MRC and ARC in regard to diet and human health. He was a member of the Joint ARC/MRC Committee on Food and Nutrition Research in the early 1970s, which profoundly influenced the development of human nutrition research in the UK. He was also largely responsible for putting the ‘F’ in to ARC to form the Agricultural and Food Research Council. Tony received many honours for his contributions to science; his appointment as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1978 was mainly for his contribution to the SERC. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1983.

Tony James was a dedicated family man. His marriage to OIga in 1945 produced three children: Brian, Glyn and Mair. Olga died in 1980 and in 1983 he married Linda Beare, who had been manager of Colworth’s Travel Department; their son Adam was born in 1985. Tony devoted himself more and more to his ‘second family’ when he took early retirement from Unilever Research in 1985, although for several years was non-executive director of the Wellcome Foundation. In the 1990s his health began to deteriorate as a result of Parkinson’s disease. He died on the 7th of December 2006. He was a man of great kindness, always accessible, supportive and encouraging to a young scientist beginning his career, as I have great cause to appreciate.

A biography of James has been published by the Royal Society (Gurr, M. Biogr. Mems. Fell. R. Soc., 58 129-150 (2012) (DOI:10.1098/rsbm.2011.0018"). Mike Gurr has also written and self-published a comprehensive biography of James' personal life and scientific accomplishments (for details contact email:



  1. Martin, A.J.P. and Synge, R.L.M. A new form of chromatography employing two liquid phases. Biochem. J., 35, 1358-1368 (1941).
  2. James, A.T. and Martin, A.J.P. Gas-liquid partition chromatography: the separation and micro-estimation of volatile fatty acids from formic acid to dodecanoic acid. Ibid, 50, 679-690 (1952).
  3. James, A.T. It seems like only yesterday: development of gas-liquid chromatography. INFORM, 6, 820-834 (1995) and here...
  4. Gurr, M.I. and James, A.T. Lipid Biochemistry: An Introduction. 1st edition (Chapman & Hall, London) (1971).

March 10th, 2014

M.I. Gurr