James Norman Davidson (1911-72), Professor of Biochemistry, 1947-72

James Norman Davidson (1911-72), Professor of Biochemistry, 1947-72

Robert Y Thomson and Moira Rankin

(First published in Dunaskin News, October 2003)

Photograph of Professor Davidson with Adrienne Ficq, author of Analyse de l'induction neurale chez Amphibiens au moyen d'organisateurs marqués.  Journal of Embryology and Experimental Morphology. 1954, 2 (3):194-203. The reverse bears the inscription “merci pour vos bons voeu. Je vous soulicide une très heureuse annee 1958. Adrienne Ficq”. 1958.  (GUAS Ref: DC 24/82.  Copyright reserved.)This month we highlight an important collection of papers relating to the history of Biochemistry at the University - those of Norman Davidson who held the Gardiner Chair of Biochemistry from 1947 to 1972.

James Norman Davidson was born 5 March 1911, son of James Davidson FRSE.  He was educated at George Watson’s College, Edinburgh and Edinburgh University.  He was a distinguished student holding the Vans Dunlop Entrance Scholarship in Medicine, Robert Wilson Memorial Prize and the Wellcome Gold Medal.  He held positions in Dundee, Aberdeen and London before his appointment to the Glasgow chair.  He was also Carnegie Research Fellow in Biochemistry at the world famous Kaiser Wilhelm Institut fur Zellphysiologie, Berlin-Dahlem in 1937-38.

Davidson guest lectured all over the world and was examiner in Biochemistry for many UK Universities.  He was a member of many bodies including the Board of Management of Glasgow Royal Infirmary from 1948-68 and he was President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1958-59.  He published widely including The Biochemistry of Nucleic Acids which had its 9th edition published by Chapman and Hall in 1981.  He died on 11th September 1972 and his widow, Dr Morag Davidson subsequently endowed a University of Glasgow Prize in Biochemistry in memory of her late husband.  In 1999 the University named the building which houses the Biochemistry Department in his honour.

The papers of Professor Davidson were deposited in the University Archive in two batches - the first by the Professor’s widow in 1975 and the second was deposited by the co-author of this article, Dr Robert Y Thomson, in 2001. The collection consists of:

  • Papers relating to early career, 1928-1944.
  • Papers relating to appointments to the Medical Research Council, St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School, 1945-1947; Gardiner Chair of Physiological Chemistry, 1947.
  • Lecture notes, 1939-1969.
  • Published articles, 1936-1970.
  • Photographs, c1938-c1970s.

The photographs, deposited by Dr Thomson are particularly interesting.  They were rescued from a cupboard in Biochemistry just before they were to be thrown in the bin.  Dr Thomson remembered that they had once adorned the walls of Professor Davidson’s office and indeed they still bear the holes where drawing pins once held them up.  They show significant events in the history of the department such as construction of the Biochemistry building, staff and student events and academic conferences.  Davidson had also kept photographs, some signed, of major figures in Biochemistry including Francis Harry Compton Crick (b1916), Nobel Laureate 1962; and Har Gobind Khorana (b1922), Nobel Laureate 1968.  These are now among his papers in the archive.

Robert Y Thomson was first a student of Professor Davidson's in the late 1940s and was then appointed as an Assistant in his Department in 1953. He has seen many changes in the last 50 years.  Below he remembers the Professor's contribution to the University and to the study of Biochemistry.

In retrospect, I would have to admit that even as late as my own student days in the 1940s there was very little by way of an intellectual corpus of biochemical doctrine to excite an inquiring mind.  Norman Davidson brought the resources of a powerful mind, enormous energy, industry and tenacity, fixity of purpose and tenacity in its pursuit.  These qualities enabled him to transform research and teaching in his Department and to gain for it a place in the University it had never previously enjoyed.  Before his arrival, biochemistry, or rather physiological chemistry, had been taught almost exclusively to medical students, and only to the elementary level thought sufficient to their needs.  Only a handful of Science students sought to pursue it to Honours level.  After he had been in post for twenty years, as many as a quarter of entrants to the Faculty of Science took biochemistry at some stage in their curriculum and admission to the Honours class (strictly limited to 24) was the subject of fierce competition.

It astonishes me that biochemistry did excite a young man as variously gifted as Davidson.  But excite him it did.  When I came to know him in later years, I was inclined to credit him with a degree of intuition in scientific matters which went beyond any obvious rational basis.  Perhaps his decision to opt for such an unfashionable speciality was an early example of this extraordinary insight.  It proved wise.  The 1930s saw the first steps in the process by which a relatively restricted sub-speciality of human physiology expanded to illuminate the whole of biology.  And as a research fellow in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin in 1937-38 Davidson was in a singularly privileged position to observe this transformation.  There, he was profoundly influenced by the 1931 Nobel prizewinner, Otto Warburg, whose work opened up new ways in the fields of cellular metabolism and cellular respiration.

Photograph of the start of construction of the Davidson building, University of Glasgow, 1962.  (GUAS Ref: DC 24/49/5.  Copyright reserved.) 	 Davidson was only aged 36 when he was appointed to the Gardiner Chair at Glasgow.  One might have expected a professor so young and so eminently gifted to have bent his energies to the advancement of his personal reputation.  But Davidson did not, as he put it, aspire to be a research fellow in his own department.  His aim was always to provide an environment in which younger men and women could do good work.  Those of us privileged to have been his pupils would willingly testify to this success.  Outwardly, he conformed to the authoritarian model of the autocratic Scots professor, but his autocracy was exercised with a great sense of his responsibility toward those whose careers he had sought to forward.  He was never too proud to solicit their assistance and always scrupulous in acknowledging in their help.


His contribution to the University was immense.  He inherited a Department with a distinguished reputation.  One thinks of the dietary surveys of Noel Paton, EP Cathcart and John Boyd Orr and the improvement in standards of nutrition they brought about, especially for children; of David Cuthertson's study of the metabolism of patients who had suffered serious injury or undergone surgery and his demonstration that they needed an enhanced diet during convalescence; of the establishment of clinical biochemistry by Noah Morris, Wilson Chambers, and Ellis Wilson.  Davidson, like Warburg, saw biochemistry as embracing the chemical aspect of the structure and function of all living organisms whether animal or plant or microbial, and the direction he gave his department reflected that wider vision.  He sustained the lines of research which had gained the department its existing reputation.  But he also fostered new initiatives such as the study of the metabolism of micro-organisms a nd the use of cultured tissues and cells rather than experimental animals.  He insisted that his pupils should have at least a basic competence in the statistical analysis of the results of their experiments.

By the late 1960s Davidson's career appeared to have reached its zenith.  He could look back on twenty years of scholarly achievement and distinguished service to the University.  His academic peers had elected him FRS and government had awarded a CBE.  Sadly, these honours were followed by a succession of heart attacks to the last of which he succumbed in 1972.