Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Peter Dennis Mitchell FRS (1920-1992), biochemist

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This record is held by Cambridge University Library: Department of Manuscripts and University Archives

Details of Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Peter Dennis Mitchell FRS (1920-1992), biochemist
Title: Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Peter Dennis Mitchell FRS (1920-1992), biochemist
Reference: NCUACS 65.3.97















This large collection is uneven in its coverage as Mitchell destroyed much material on his move from Edinburgh in 1963. However, significant earlier material does survive with the comprehensive documentation of his career and work at Glynn.


Section A, Biographical, is not extensive. It includes obituaries of Mitchell, entries for biographical source-books and biographical information provided to researchers. The award of the Nobel prize is particularly well-documented including letters of congratulation and papers relating to the visit to Stockholm to collect the prize. There is also material relating to other honours and awards accorded Mitchell including the Fellowship of the Royal Society, 1974, the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1981, and a number of honorary degrees. The section also includes two extracts from Mitchell's diary covering the period 1983-1992.


Section B, Glynn Research Institute, brings together material relating to its administration, with particular emphasis on fund-raising, although there is very little material predating 1979. The desk diaries are useful sources for the daily running of the Glynn Research Institute and provide insights into Mitchell's day-to-day activities. The methods employed at the Institute to raise funds for its survival are well reflected by the material, including documentation regarding the production and use of brochures, appeal letters, advertisements and articles to encourage donations. Formal grant applications to funding bodies, such as the Medical Research Council, Nuffield Foundation and Wellcome Trust, with related correspondence are also included. Folders relating to visits to the Institute were also kept from the early 1980s and these papers have been presented in a chronological sequence. Information concerning earlier visitors is to be found in section G in the correspondence files of the visitors concerned.


Section C, Research, Includes both Mitchell's own research material and that of research collaborators. Mitchell's own papers includes a student notebook dating from 1940, and some material relating to his wartime work on the chemical warfare agent Lewisite, undertaken with J. F. Danielli. The post-war papers runs from the late 1940s to 1989 and include material concerning all aspects of his research work at Cambridge to 1955, Edinburgh University 1955-1963 and at Glynn from 1964. The material comprises notebooks, manuscript and typescript drafts, manuscript notes and calculations. The bulk was found in Mitchell's own folders, sometimes with a note of the subjects of the research inscribed thereon. The research material of collaborators comprises notebooks of his long-term research colleague Jennifer Moyle, a research student Steven Clarke, and Roy Mitchell, who was Chief Technician at Glynn 1965-1970 and research associate thereafter. The research work of Roy Mitchell, covering the period 1970-1994, is of importance in supplementing the records of the research of Mitchell and Jennifer Moyle under whom he worked.


Section D, Publications, lectures and broadcasts, is extensive. It covers the period 1958-1991 and includes drafts of many of Mitchell's scientific publications, including work undertaken in collaboration with other researchers, most notably Jennifer Moyle. The largest single sequence is material relating to Perspectives in Vectorial Metabolism and Osmochemistry, the book produced by the Glynn Research Institute to mark its 25th anniversary in 1990. The section also includes material relating to historical retrospectives on the origins of the chemiosmotic theory, with particular reference to the discussion between Mitchell and R.J.P. Williams. There is a sequence of editorial correspondence, principally requests to Mitchell to referee articles for journals or to write articles or books. Publications material also includes correspondence and papers relating to Mitchell's many letters to the Financial Times and The Times on economic and related matters. The lectures material chiefly covers public lectures given to learned societies and student university societies after Mitchell's move to Glynn. University teaching at Edinburgh may be represented, however, by a set of twelve lectures on the chemical aspects of biology dating from about 1960. Among the more prestigious lectures documented are the Ninth CIBA Medal Lecture of 1974, the Royal Institution of Chemistry's Humphrey Davy Memorial Lecture, 1980, and the Royal Society's Croonian Lecture of 1987. Broadcasts material includes transcripts of some of Mitchell's contributions to radio and television broadcasts. There are also audio and video tapes of interviews with Mitchell and a set of reprints of Mitchell's publications 1943-1992.


Section E, Societies and organisations, documents Mitchell's association with 81 UK, overseas and international bodies. There are few extended sequences and the greatest proportion of the material dates from the 1970s and 1980s. Mitchell's membership of British learned societies is poorly documented, the best being that relating to the Royal Institution and the Royal Society. However, he was elected to the membership of a number of overseas learned societies and academies and this is well reflected in the material. Among the largest sequences in the section are those relating to Mitchell's service as referee for grants, fellowships etc. for the Commission of the European Communities, the Medical Research Council, the US National Science Foundation and the Science (later Science and Engineering) Research Council. Also well-documented is Mitchell's membership of the Winnicott Trust (Chairman of the Advisory Committee from 1991). There is material relating to Jesus College Cambridge of which he was elected Honorary Fellow in 1980. He was also approached by a number of human rights and peace organisations seeking his support for various international campaigns.


Section F, Visits and conferences, covers the period 1958-1992. It documents much of Mitchell's attendance at conferences and seminars and travels in the UK and abroad. Mitchell travelled extensively although he rarely spent prolonged periods away from Glynn. The bulk of the material dates from the period after the award of the Nobel Prize in 1978, when his presence was particularly sought-after at important international and national meetings. The papers also document many invitations he declined and show that Mitchell was forced to cancel or withdraw from a number of engagements because of ill-health. Some of his later visits to London and elsewhere were in connection, or combined with, fund-raising for the Glynn Research Institute.


Section G, Correspondence, is the largest in the collection. It is arranged alphabetically by individual or organisation, following the Glynn Research Institute's arrangement, with most of the material dating from the period 1961-1992. Much of Mitchell's earlier correspondence was lost or destroyed when he moved from Edinburgh to Glynn. The correspondence is largely scientific in content and documents well the development of Mitchell's chemiosmotic hypothesis and the attitudes of fellow scientists to his work in the bioenergetics field. It also indicates his reactions to the work of other researchers since the section includes numerous manuscripts sent to Mitchell for comment. Scientists whose correspondence with Mitchell is of particular significance include P.D. Boyer, B. Chance, J.F. Danielli, A.L. Lehninger, E. Racker, E.C. Slater, M.K.F. Wikström and R.J.P. Williams. Mitchell's fund-raising activities to prevent the closure of the Glynn Research Institute are illustrated in this section in various forms, such as informal applications for grants and donations as well as requests for advice and assistance. There is also a little personal correspondence in the section, touching on Mitchell's interests outside scientific research. His correspondence with B.H. Weber is accompanied by transcripts of an interview conducted by Weber in 1980, containing significant biographical information.

Date: 1940-1994
Held by: Cambridge University Library: Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, not available at The National Archives
Language: English
Extent: ca 2900 items
Administrative History:



Peter Dennis Mitchell was born in Mitcham in Surrey on 29 September 1920. He was educated at Queen's College, Taunton, 1932-1938 and in 1939 he gained admittance to Jesus College, Cambridge. He obtained a Third Class in Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos and after specialising in biochemistry in Part II he gained an Upper Second Honours Degree.


In 1942 Mitchell accepted a research post in the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge at the invitation of J.F. Danielli. His first research concerned the development of a glycoside of BAL (British Anti-Lewisite) to treat skin lesions resulting from use of the chemical warfare agent, lewisite. This secret war work was published in 1946 and 1947 but was considered an unsuitable basis for a doctoral thesis. In 1945 Mitchell began research towards his Ph.D and following Danielli's move to London became a research student of E.F. Gale, Director of the Sub-Department of Microbial Biochemistry, in the Cambridge Biochemical Department. It was during this period that he was first introduced to Jennifer Moyle who acted as his research associate from 1948 until her retirement in 1983, apart from a short period between 1952 and 1955 when she was an assistant to Malcolm Dixon at Cambridge. While at Cambridge Mitchell also consulted David Keilin who had a strong influence on him scientifically. Mitchell's doctoral thesis 'Nucleic acid synthesis and the bactericidal action of penicillin' was initially rejected in 1950 but was passed early in the following year after resubmission. In 1950 Mitchell became Demonstrator in the Biochemistry Department at Cambridge where from 1951 to 1953 he designed and carried out experiments on the exchange and uptake of inorganic phosphate and arsenate through the osmotic barrier of Micrococcus pyogenes.


In 1955 Mitchell moved from Cambridge to the University of Edinburgh, where he accepted Professor Michael Swann's invitation to set up a biochemical research unit in the Zoology Department. Mitchell in turn asked Jennifer Moyle to join him which she did. It was at Edinburgh University that the chemiosmotic theory of oxidative phosphorylation was developed by Mitchell. He first used the term 'chemiosmotic' in a lecture read to a Biochemical Society Symposium in February 1957 and in 1961 he set out the principal features of his hypothesis in a paper for 'Nature', entitled 'Coupling of phosphorylation to electron and hydrogen transfer by a chemiosmotic type of mechanism'. At this time Mitchell was appointed as a Senior Lecturer and in the following year (1962) he became a Reader.


Severe gastric ulcers in 1962 led Mitchell to take a long leave of absence from Edinburgh in order to recuperate in a holiday cottage, Glynn Mill, at the entrance to Glynn House, near Bodmin, Cornwall. He had already purchased Glynn House with a view to restoring it, just as he had bought a manse in Temple, ten miles south of Edinburgh and used his building skills to renovate it several years earlier. It was only after Mitchell's illness that he decided to establish a research institute at Glynn House. Jennifer Moyle agreed to act as co-founder and Mitchell left Edinburgh in 1963. Between 1963 and 1965 he withdrew from scientific research. By the autumn of 1964 Glynn House had been completely reconstructed and restored at a cost of £70,000, paid for by Mitchell himself. The Institute was provided with an endowment of £240,000 by Peter Mitchell and his brother, Christopher, who transferred their shares in Wimpey and Co. to Glynn Research Limited. This charitable company administered the Institute until its name was changed to the Glynn Research Foundation Limited in 1985.


From 1964 to 1986 Mitchell held the post of Director of Research at the Glynn Research Institute. The chemiosmotic hypothesis he had advocated during his years at Edinburgh University did not gain immediate acceptance but he continued to support it. In 1965 Mitchell, Moyle and a technician, Roy Mitchell (later research associate), began work, planning and carrying out the experimental research required to test the hypothesis. This was an extension of the experiments with mitochondria and bacteria which Mitchell and Moyle had carried out at the University of Edinburgh. Mitchell spent a considerable amount of time on theoretical work, while Moyle and the other members of the research group did much of the experimental work. In 1966 the first 'grey book' was produced (so called because of the cover's colour) entitled 'Chemiosmotic Coupling in Oxidative and Photosynthetic Phosphorylation'. A second 'grey book', 'Chemiosmotic Coupling and Energy Transduction' followed in 1968. Both were published by Glynn Research Limited and the ideas they contained remained fundamentally unaltered by Mitchell until 1975. From the beginning scientists were invited to stay briefly at Glynn House so that informal, private discussion could take place. Robert Crane made the first visit, to be followed by over 150 other scientists during the ensuing twenty years.


By 1970 a large amount of evidence had been accumulated which supported the chemiosmotic hypothesis and Mitchell's work continued to examine its application for the next twenty years. The early 1970s saw criticism of his linear loop model for the respiratory chain. Mitchell's own concerns about this model led to a major breakthrough on 20 May 1975, when he came up with the concept of the Q cycle. Although the Q cycle faced opposition from various quarters, by the mid-1980s the weight of evidence stood in its favour. Throughout the 1980s Mitchell continued to apply his chemiosmotic theory to experimental evidence, using it for example to examine the model of the ATPase mechanism and the functioning of cytochrome oxidase. Mitchell was a prominent figure in the scientific debate as to whether cytochrome oxidase acts as a proton pump. He arranged a conference at Glynn on this subject on 22-24 March 1983 in the form of an 'octavian discussion', at which no more than eight of the twenty participants sat at the table at any one time. By 1985 the controversial issue was resolved. Mitchell changed his views, accepting that cytochrome oxidase has a proton pumping function, and proceeded to propose mechanisms for cytochrome oxidase.


In 1987 Mitchell became Chairman and Honorary Director of The Glynn Research Institute, with Dr Peter Rich given the position of Director of Molecular Research. Much of the last decade of Mitchell's life was devoted to fund raising for the Institute to prevent its closure. Mitchell died on 10 April 1992.


Mitchell had numerous interests besides scientific research and the restoration of buildings of historical interest. He was elected as a member of the Economic Research Council in 1975 and his interest in economic matters is further reflected by a number of letters he wrote to the Financial Times as well as his open letter in 1982 to Sir Jeremy Morse, Chairman of the Committee of London Clearing Bankers. Mitchell was interested in communication problems between individuals in civilised societies and sought to promote studies of human communication at Glynn alongside the molecular research. Mitchell's other interests included the minting of his own silver coins.


Peter Mitchell was accorded many honours for his contributions to biochemistry, starting with the Ciba Medal from the Biochemical Society in 1973. He was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1974 (Copley Medal, 1981, Croonian Lecturer, 1987) and made an Honorary Member of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1977. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1978 'for his contribution to the understanding of biological energy transfer through the formulation of the chemiosmotic theory'. He was elected Honorary Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1980.


Mitchell's main contribution to biochemistry was his chemiosmotic theory. In a document drawn up for the Central Office of Information in 1989 (see A.10) he wrote about the theory in the following way:


'Dr Mitchell's theory explains the main mechanism by which the energy of electron-transfer, associated with light absorption or oxidation, is made available in the living cells of plants, animals and microbes. He first proposed it as a hypothesis in 1961, challenging the prevailing view that energy-supplying actions, such as absorption of sunlight in a plant or oxidation of chemicals in an animal, were coupled to the synthesis of the universal energy-storage substance adenosine triphosphate (ATP) through a series of unstable chemical intermediaries. He suggested instead that the electron-transfer process, associated with light absorption or oxidation, generated proticity (the protonic analogue of electricity) in modules of molecular dimensions plugged through a membrane, and that the proticity drove the production of ATP in other modules plugged through the same membrane.'

  • Biochemistry
Creator Names:
  • Mitchell, Joseph Stanley, 1909-1987, scientist and cancer researcher
Immediate Source Of Acquisition:
  • The papers were received in August 1996, from the Glynn Research Institute, Bodmin, Cornwall. In May 1997 Mrs Helen Mitchell made available for cataloguing two extracts of her husband's diary.

Conditions of access:











Compiled by Alan Hayward, Adrian Nardone and Timothy E. Powell


The work of the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists, and the production of this catalogue, are made possible by the support of the following societies and organisations:


The Biochemical Society


The Geological Society


The Higher Education Funding Council for England


The Institute of Physics


The Royal Society


The Wellcome Trust




We are very grateful to Professor P.R. Rich, Mrs Stephanie Key, Dr B.H. Weber and Dr J.N. Prebble for their advice and encouragement, and to Dr J.M. Moyle for making available her notebooks and other research material for cataloguing with the Mitchell collection. We are also grateful to Mrs Helen Mitchell for making available extracts of her husband's diary.

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