I was privileged to be an observer and a minor contributor to a development which is second to none in the fields of chemistry and the biological sciences. I refer to chromatographic analysis which came to the fore in the 1940s and 50s. The earliest chromatography is generally believed to be the invention of the Russian botanist, Tswett, who in 1906 resolved a mixture of plant pigments by putting it on to the top of a column of powdered chalk and eluting the column with petroleum. In so doing, the pigments adsorbed to the chalk were differentially desorbed by the petroleum resulting in the separation of the mixture into coloured bands.
Some 40 years later column partition chromatography was devised where separations depended on the distribution of the compounds undergoing analysis between a solvent bound to an inert material, such as cellulose, and a second solvent passing down the column. This process was adapted for use on paper sheets, which allowed high-speed separations of the constituents of multi-component, large molecules such as proteins and complex carbohydrates. Prior to chromatography, such separations ranged from difficult to almost impossible. These early developments were rapidly overtaken by thin layer, ion exchange, gas-liquid, gel permeation and affinity chromatography and several other adaptations all of which have allowed much of science and medicine to progress at an impressive rate.
Jack Pridham is Emeritus professor of biochemistry at Royal Holloway College, University of London and editor of Chemo-Philia.