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Memories of Britton Chance

E.C. (Bill) Slater / Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry of the University of Amsterdam

12 May 2011

I first met Britton Chance more thany 60 years ago in Stockholm during the International Congress on Cell Biology and at the International Congress of Physiology in Oxford that shortly followed in the summer of 1947, only two years since the end of the war. Brit was then working in Hugo Theorell's laboratory and I was a graduate student of David Keilin at the Molteno Institute in Cambridge. Brit gave a paper at the Physiology Congress entitled "The enzyme-subsrate compound in the oxidation of alcohol by catalase and hydrogen peroxide." He used the sensitive and rapid photoelectric technique pioneered by Roughton and Glen Milliken, friends from his pre-war period in Cambridge. After the Congress, Brit set up the apparatus in the Molteno Insitute to demonstrate his findings to Keilin. I can well remember the look of astonishment on Keilin's face while he watched Brit set up his apparatus. Keilin's great discoveries had been made with the microspectroscope and the Hartridge reversion spectroscopes

In the summer of 1949, I accepted Brit's invitation to spend two weeks in the Johnson Foundation, the first of many visits over the years. Brit was now moving from catalase and peroxidase to the study of the electron transfer in the respiratory chain. With the help of Lucile Smith, Helen Conrad, and Tom Devlin, I adapted the Molteno procedure method of making the so-called Keilin and Hartree heart-muscle preparation (sub-mitochondrial particles) for Brit to put in his photoelectric spectrophotometer (then only still single beam). We worked together in the dark room, since his spectrophotometer was not sealed from extraneous light. I suggested that we try the effect of cyanide. After a search Brit found a bottle which he said contained cyanide but it did not have the expected effect, so we took the bottle outside the read its label and found that it was silver cyanide! A search produced a bottle of potassium cyanide (probably from another laboratory) and the experiments could proceed.

The results were included in a paper published in Nature with a footnote acknowledging my collaboration, so that I can proudly boast of being one of Brit's footnotes. I can remember mulling over the results in Mantoloking while Brit was competing in the local sailing race in which he demonstrated his strong competitive spirit.

Brit's subsequent development of the double beam spectrophotometer greatly helped the development of our understanding of the mechanism of oxidative phosphorylation.

In the subsequent 50 years or so, I enjoyed Brit's hospitality, sometimes with my wife, and once also with our young daughter at the JF, Pine Street, and Mantaloking. I can remember all of us together at Mantaloking in 1969 watching the moon landing on the TV.

After my retirement 25 years ago, our Christmas letters concentrated on our respective sailing activities. But Brit of course did not retire. He applied his great technical knowledge and expertise directly to investigate medical problems.

Brit will be remembered as one of the truly great figures in biophysics and biochemistry of our time.

It was a privilege to have known him.

– E.C. (Bill) Slater