Catalogue description Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of SIR ROBERT ROBINSON O.M., F.R.S. (1886 - 1975)

This record is held by Royal Society

Details of CSAC94.5.83
Reference: CSAC94.5.83
Title: Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of SIR ROBERT ROBINSON O.M., F.R.S. (1886 - 1975)







CSAC94.5.83/A.13-CSAC94.5.83/A.24, CSAC94.5.83/A.62-CSAC94.5.83/A.69 PERSONAL MATERIAL


CSAC94.5.83/A.25-CSAC94.5.83/A.61 AUTOBIOGRAPHY








CSAC94.5.83/B.249-CSAC94.5.83/B.349 THESES AND REPORTS






CSAC94.5.83/C.25-CSAC94.5.83/C.38 BOOKS








CSAC94.5.83/E.5 -CSAC94.5.83/E.11 TAPE RECORDINGS


CSAC94.5.83/E.12-CSAC94.5.83/E.51 PHOTOGRAPHS


In addition to the note of awe discernible in The Times obituary quoted above and echoed in other accounts, most of those who worked with, or for, or after Robinson also unite in bemoaning the restless volatility, impatience with administration, disdain for memoranda or the routine taking of carbon copies which were the price paid (usually by others) for his dazzling qualities of memory and insight. G.N. Burkhardt writes (op. cit. p.455): 'the backs of old envelopes covered with pluses, minuses and partial valencies and, later, arrows of all shapes became an important part of [Robinson's and Lapworth's] equipment'. J.C. Smith (op. cit. p.16) paints a similar picture: 'Around 1923-25 it was fascinating to listen to Robinson and Lapworth, in Manchester, instructing each other while scribbling formulae on cigarette papers'. A.C. Chibnall has recalled how Robinson solved a research problem for him over lunch by sketching a chemical structure on the restaurant tablecloth. For the later period of work at Oxford, Todd and Cornforth (Memoir, p.424) and J.C. Smith provide similar testimony to Robinson's volatile temperament and his sporadic bursts of research or instruction for his students.


These recollected incidents go some way to explain the haphazard nature of the surviving documents and the difficulty in interpreting and presenting them, most particularly the scientific research material which makes up Section B. While the cigarette papers and the tablecloth have disappeared, many loose jottings of ideas and structures remain without dates or references. Every effort has been made to assign this material to some identified field of study or period of time. In this regard, Sir John Cornforth has been exceptionally generous of his time and expertise and, by bringing his own skill and his long association with Robinson to bear on the most unpromising scraps of paper, he has often achieved remarkable feats of divination. As a result, the unattributed miscellaneous material still remaining at CSAC94.5.83/B.212-CSAC94.5.83/B.248 is surprisingly small.


Section B also preserves a number of theses and reports by others, mainly members of Robinson's research teams whose work is often annotated (however cryptically) by him. One of the most interesting items is CSAC94.5.83/B.34, a sequence of ideas on the possible structure of strychnine, tentatively dated 1945-47 by Sir John Cornforth, who describes it as 'the nearest you will get to Robert thinking'. To a later period belong two relatively extensive sequences of research and correspondence, on the origins of petroleum CSAC94.5.83/B.95-CSAC94.5.83/B.139) and on drug research (CSAC94.5.83/B. 170-CSAC94.5.83/B. 181) which indicate the energy Robinson could bring to bear on research problems even at an advanced age. For his dynamic early years, only the tantalisingly incomplete series of letters from Lapworth remains (CSAC94.5.83/D.38-CSAC94.5.83/D.43).


Another regretted lacuna is adequate documentation of Robinson's public life, service on committees, advisory councils, learned societies, and in the launching of new journals. Fortunately, some of his own assessment of his work in these and other fields can be gleaned from the autobiographical material in Sections A and E. This includes not only the background material and corrected proofs of the first, and only published, volume of his memoirs (CSAC94.5.83/A.25-CSAC94.5.83/A.28) but substantial typescript drafts of the second volume which was unfinished at his death together with narratives, correspondence and photographs sent to him by colleagues. Section E also includes tape-recordings of conversations with colleagues covering similar types of recollections.


It is well known that Robinson retained his activity of mind throughout his long life and despite the onset of blindness. As well as the memoirs, on which he was working to the day of his death, he was engaged in various other late writing projects, on chemistry and on chess. Some drafts for these can be found in Section C.


Compiled by Jeannine Alton and Julia Latham-Jackson


The work of the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre, and the production of this catalogue, are made possible by the support of the following societies and institutions


The Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland


The Biochemical Society


The British Pharmacological Society


The Charles Babbage Foundation for the History of Information Processing


The Institute of Physics


The Institution of Electrical Engineers


The Nuffield Foundation


The Physiological Society


The Royal Society of London


We are grateful for help and information from many sources, and in particular to


Dr. Marion Way and Mr. George Walsh, for additional material, and for information, advice and encouragement.


Professor Sir John Cornforth, for invariable help in identifying material, and for comments on the draft catalogue


Dr. J.C. Smith, for making correspondence and papers available for the collection, and for permission to quote from his unpublished history of the Dyson Perrins Laboratory


Professor Sir Ewart Jones, Dr. G.N. Burkhardt, Dr. J.A. Barltrop, for advice and information


Mrs. Robert Maxwell, and Mr. N.H. Robinson, for help in obtaining and forwarding material, and for their unfailing encouragement over a long period of time

Date: ca1902-1983
Related material:

A display of some of Robinson's medals and scrolls of honour is housed in the Muniment Room of Robinson & Sons Ltd., Chesterfield.


The following published accounts of the Robinson family and firm have been presented by Dr. Marion Way to the Royal Society of London and are held in the Library


'The Robinson family of Bolsover and Chesterfield'


By P.M. Robinson and A.L. Spence. 320 pp.


Printed and published by Robinson & Sons Ltd., Chesterfield, 1937.


(Marion Way's signed copy)


'Supplement to The Robinsons of Chesterfield'


By Philip Robinson. 136 pp.


Printed for private circulation among members of the John Bradbury Robinson family, 1961.


'Pill boxes and bandages'


By Chrichton Porteous. 188 pp.


Robinson & Sons Ltd., Chesterfield. n.d

Held by: Royal Society, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Robinson, Sir, Robert, 1886-1875, knight, scientist and chemist

Physical description: ca 580 items 9.5 linear feet
Immediate source of acquisition:

Most of the material was received in 1975 from Lady (Stearn) Robinson, and, after her death, from her legal advisers.


Items A.62 - A.69, E.42 - E.48 were received from Dr. Marion Way, daughter of Robert and Gertrude Robinson; they include a little material from Mr. George Walsh, nephew of Robert and Gertrude Robinson.


Items A.4 - A.7, D.62 - D.65 were received from Dr. J.C. Smith, a former colleague of Robinson.

  • Chemistry
Administrative / biographical background:

Robinson's obituary notice in The Times (10 February 1975), headlined 'World authority on chemistry', describes him as 'one of the greatest scientists Britain has ever produced' and refers to 'his quite exceptional gifts' and 'his deep insight into chemical problems [which] astonished his colleagues'.


Born into a well-to-do family of surgical dressing manufacturers (Robinsons of Chesterfield), Robinson entered the University of Manchester in 1902 aged sixteen, and on graduation began research there under W.H. Perkin. Other lasting relationships dating from this period were with C. Weizmann (from 1906) and A. Lapworth (from 1909). In 1912 Robinson was appointed to his first chair, at Sydney, and subsequently occupied chairs of organic chemistry at Liverpool (1915), St. Andrews (1920), Manchester (1922), University College London (1928), and the Waynflete Chair of Chemistry, Oxford (1930-55).


In all these posts, Robinson developed productive research schools working in a wide range of chemical problems; on retirement (after his tenure of the Waynflete Chair had been extended,) his activity continued in a small laboratory made available by the Shell Chemical Company, where he was a consultant. His achievements were acknowledged by the scientific community, notably by the award of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1947, by the Presidency of the Chemical Society (1939-41), the Royal Society (1945-50), and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1955), and by many medals and honorary degrees. He also received official honours: a knighthood (1939) and the Order of Merit (1949).


See CSAC94.5.83/A.10


(CSAC94.5.83/A.29-CSAC94.5.83/A.61, see especially CSAC94.5.83/A.60)


He was twice married, to Gertrude Mary Walsh (d.1954), and to Stearn Hillstrom (d.1976). Robinson died in 1975, aged 88.


A fuller account of Robinson's career can be found in the Memoir by Lord Todd and Sir John Cornforth (Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 22, 1976, pp.415-527). The period at Manchester is referred to in an article by G.N. Burkhardt, 'The School of Chemistry in the University of Manchester', J. Roy. Inst. Chem., 1954, and the Oxford period is described in 'The Robinson Era 1930-55', Part 2 of 'The Development of Organic Chemistry at Oxford' by J.C. Smith (unpublished,) These accounts have been frequently drawn upon in the compilation of this catalogue, with permission which is gratefully acknowledged.

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