Catalogue description Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of ROBERT HILL FRS (1899 - 1991)

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

Details of NCUACS 46.2.94
Reference: NCUACS 46.2.94
Title: Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of ROBERT HILL FRS (1899 - 1991)



















This collection covers almost all aspects of Hill's career.


Section A, Biographical, consists principally of Hill's own records of his career, personal and family correspondence and photographs. It includes summaries by Hill of his research activities and some documentation of honours he received, including his election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1946, and the award of its Royal and Copley medals. The section also includes notebooks used for recording domestic and personal matters.


Section B, Research, is the largest in the collection. It documents all aspects of Hill's research except that relating to the fish-eye camera, which is to be found in section C. The papers in this section document Hill's research from his days at Bedales School to research notes written very shortly before his death, a period of over seventy years. Represented here are Hill's earliest scientific interests in meteorology and dyeing, school and undergraduate notes, Hill's first postgraduate research on inorganic pigments, and his subsequent investigations into the biochemistry of haemoglobin and haematin, including his collaboration from 1926 with Keilin on the isolation of cytochrome c. There is good documentation of his work on photosynthesis including research leading up to his 1937 discovery of the 'Hill reaction', and his and F.L. Bendall's outlining of the 'Z scheme' in 1960. Hill's interest in the relationship of thermodynamics to photosynthesis is particularly well-represented - including a sequence of fifty notebooks used over a period of thirty years from 1960. Hill continued to work in other areas, most of which are represented in this section. These included work on the chemistry of anthraquinone colouring matters in plants in the 1930s, work on dye-stuffs, and collaboration with A.B. Beakbane and others at the East Malling Research Station on the biology of fruit tree rootstocks.


The bulk of the material is in the form of notebooks of various formats, but there are also research notes, graphs, calculations etc. Much of this loose material was found in Hill's folders or envelopes, often identified by subject titles inscribed thereon. At the end of the section is a sequence of photographs found loose.


Section C, Fish-eye camera, provides documentation of Hill's development of the camera in the 1920s and 1930s. There are Hill's notebooks recording his development of the lens system, many photographs taken by Hill using the lens, correspondence relating to the marketing of the camera by R. & J. Beck Ltd, and newspaper and magazine cuttings with photographs taken using the camera. The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Cambridge holds further stereoscopic photographs and examples of the 'fish-eye' camera.


Section D, Cambridge University, is chiefly research reports on work in progress in plant biochemistry for the Department of Biochemistry annual reports and material relating to the funding of Hill's research from the 1920s until his retirement. Hill's teaching is documented in section F.


Section E, Publications, brings together notes, drafts, correspondence and other related material for some of Hill's work published or intended for publication c.1928-1985. This material has been linked where possible to the list of Hill's publications prepared for his Royal Society memoir by D.S. Bendall at NCUACS 46.2.94/A.12. It includes a number of drafts of Hill's work on the thermodynamic efficiency of photosynthesis, including those of papers submitted for publication to the Royal Society in 1961 and Nature in 1980 but rejected as unacceptable. There is also a sequence of editorial correspondence with journals and publishing houses. There is a set of Hill's published papers at NCUACS 46.2.94/E.118.


Section F, Lectures, principally consists of material for Hill's teaching at Cambridge University. It includes notes for lectures and for practical classes in plant biochemistry, chiefly dating from the 1930s and 1950s, and material for a lecture in a series organised by Joseph Needham on the history of biochemistry. There is very little material relating to public and invitation lectures.


Section G, Societies and organisations, is slight. It comprises material relating to eleven British and international organisations. Of particular interest is material relating to the British Photobiology Group (later Society) of which Hill was a founder member in 1955, and the Comité (later Association) international de Photobiologie - Hill was elected an Honorary Member in 1968.


Section H, Visits and conferences, presents a chronological sequence, 1928-1988, of some of Hill's engagements both in the UK and abroad. Those for which most documentation survives are the visit of Hill to Singapore and the Dutch East Indies in 1932, his visit to France in 1947 as part of a Cambridge University/East Malling Research Station arboricultural expedition and a visit to Nyasaland (Malawi) in 1958 to advise on the biochemistry of tea fermentation (and the subsequent establishment of a research programme).


Section J, Correspondence, is a substantial section. Hill rarely kept carbon copies or manuscript drafts of outgoing letters so the correspondence is almost entirely incoming letters. In a few cases Hill made a rough draft of a reply on the letter received. However, there are also a number of Hill's manuscript drafts, particularly those from the late 1970s, that have draft letters to two or more correspondents thereon. There are three extensive sequences of correspondence, from E.J.H. Corner, chiefly relating to Hill's visit to Singapore and the Dutch East Indies in 1932, with staff of the East Malling Research Station, in particular A.B. Beakbane, relating to joint research on fruit tree rootstocks from 1943, and with D.A. Walker, a fellow researcher on photosynthesis from the 1950s. There is also substantial scientific correspondence in section B, retained with other material with which it was found.


Compiled by Timothy E. Powell and Peter Harper


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 Institute of Physics


The Royal Society


The Wellcome Trust




We are grateful to Mrs Priscilla Hill and her family for making the papers available and for their advice and encouragement.


We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dr D.S. Bendall in providing information and identifying documents, in commenting on sections of the draft catalogue, and in making available a draft of his Royal Society memoir of Hill and material assembled in the course of the preparation thereof.

Date: 1915-1994
Related material:

Hill's letters home from Bedales School and during his First World War service are retained in family hands.


The Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Cambridge holds an example of Hill's 'fish-eye' camera and associated apparatus and further stereoscopic photographs.

Held by: Cambridge University Library: Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Hill, Robert, 1899-1901, scientist and biochemist

Physical description: 45 boxes
Access conditions:








Immediate source of acquisition:

The papers were received from Mrs Priscilla Hill, widow, in July and November 1991 and, per D.S. Bendall, Hill's Royal Society memorialist, in September 1992 and June 1993.

  • Biochemistry
Administrative / biographical background:



Robert Hill (he was known to his friends and colleagues as Robin) was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, on 2 April 1899. He was educated at Bedales School until 1917 when he was admitted to Emmanuel College Cambridge. Before he could begin his university studies Hill became eligible for war service. He joined the Cambridge University Officers' Training Corps but in the autumn of 1917 was drafted into the infantry. In February 1918, after a short spell in training on Salisbury Plain, he was transferred to the Anti-Gas Establishment of the Royal Engineers, based at University College London. In 1919 Hill resumed his studies at Cambridge where he was to remain for the rest of his academic career. He read Chemistry, Physics and Botany in the Natural Sciences Tripos, specialising in Chemistry in Part II and graduated with a first-class degree.


At Bedales School Hill had developed a scientific interest in natural dyes and dyeing techniques. He created his own dyes and in later years Hill made up the paints he used in his water-colour paintings. This interest and his chemistry degree contributed to Hill's first postgraduate research, on inorganic pigments. In 1922 Hill joined F.G. Hopkins's Department of Biochemistry. To his disappointment, he was directed by Hopkins away from plant biochemistry to research on haemoglobin. His work on haemoglobin led to the reversible separation of the pigment and protein components, and to subsequent research on the properties of artificial haemoglobins with other metals replacing the iron of the haem pigment. After a series of papers on the properties of haemoglobin, a mutual interest in haem compounds led in 1926 to collaboration with David Keilin, then working at the Molteno Institute, Cambridge, on the isolation of cytochrome c.


Another early interest of Hill's had been meteorology. His first scientific paper was on the sunspots of February 1917. In the early 1920s Hill developed a 'fish-eye' camera, a camera with a lens able to photograph through 180°, and thus able to photograph the whole sky at once. It was first described at a meeting of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1924. The firm R. & J. Beck Ltd marketed the camera but although the camera aroused much interest it was not widely adopted.


After a visit to Singapore and the Dutch East Indies in 1932 Hill continued his research on haemoglobin with a study of its oxygen binding affinity, especially that of myoglobin (muscle haemoglobin). As with his researches with Keilin this employed spectroscopic methods, at which Hill became adept. In the 1930s Hill turned to plant biochemistry. He worked on the chemistry of anthraquinone colouring matters and other glycosides in plants and in 1938 received a Royal Society grant for work on madder dye. Hill began to study photosynthesis in 1936, with research into oxygen evolution by chloroplasts, work related to his research on haemoglobin. In 1937 he discovered the 'Hill reaction'. When isolated chloroplasts from green plant leaves were illuminated in the presence of certain iron containing salts they produced oxygen while the iron underwent reduction. The amount of oxygen evolved was initially small, requiring considerable ingenuity to measure it and Hill's experience with the spectroscopic determination of small amounts of oxygen in haemoglobin was very important. His discovery of the 'Hill reaction', followed by research on plant cytochromes established his reputation in this field. Despite this and his other research achievements Hill held no higher degree until the award of the Cambridge Sc.D. in 1942.


In 1935 Hill married Priscilla, the sister of his friend E.B. Worthington. They bought Vatches Farm, in Barton near Cambridge. Here Hill grew many of the plants and fruit trees he was to use in his research. Hill's work from 1922 had been supported by a series of research grants from various bodies. In 1943, however, Hill was taken onto the scientific staff of the Agricultural Research Council. He remained working in Cambridge biochemistry department. Hill's interest in plant biochemistry remained broad. He continued research into plant and inorganic pigments and in 1943, in cooperation with the East Malling Research Station, Maidstone, Kent he undertook research on fruit tree rootstocks, much of it on trees grown at Vatches Farm. In 1958 Hill was asked to advise on the biochemistry of tea fermentation by the Nyasaland Tea Association. He visited Nyasaland (Malawi) and helped formulate a biochemical research programme.


Hill continued to receive most recognition for his work on photosynthesis. From the late 1950s Hill concentrated on the energetics of photosynthesis and in 1960 made his second great contribution to photosynthesis research with the discovery, with F.L. Bendall, of the 'Z scheme' of electron transport which linked two photochemical energy conversion processes within photosynthesis. They suggested that the electron carriers shuttle electrons from one photosystem, involving the splitting of water, to a second, able to reduce a protein factor (later identified with the 'methaemoglobin-reducing factor' he had discovered) which transferred the electrons ultimately to carbon dioxide. Hill retired from the Agricultural Research Council in 1966 but his research activities continued little diminished until his death in 1991. In his later years Hill worked particularly extensively on the wider issue of the application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to photosynthesis. Although his first major paper on this subject ad been rejected for publication, three further papers were published in the 1980s. He continued also to pursue research on naturl nd inorganic dyes, fruit tree research and meteorology.


Hill was accorded many honours, principally for his contributions to photosynthesis. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1946 and was awarded a Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1963 and the Copley Medal in 1987. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971, a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1975 and a Foreign Member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in 1975. In 1963 Hill was made an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge and in the same year received the Charles E. Kettering Research Award and the first Award for Potosynthesis of te Society of American Plant Physiologists. Hill was elected a Member of the American Society of Biological Chemists in 1964 and received the Finsen Medal of the Comité International de Photobiologie in 1972. He received Honorary Degrees from the universities of Würzburg (1986), Göttingen (1987) and Sheffield (1990).

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