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Henry Drysdale Dakin

Born  1880-03-12
Died  1952

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American chemist, born March 12, 1880, London; died 1952.

Biography of Henry Drysdale Dakin

Henry Drysdale Dakin

”Dale and I proved that a hen is not a duck”

Born in London, Dakin was the son of a Leeds iron and steel merchant and was brought up in Leeds. He studied organic chemistry at the Victoria University, which was later renamed the University of Leeds.

After graduating Dakin went to London in 1901 and worked at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, then the Jenner Institute. It was here that he first became interested in enzymes and studied the mode of action of lipase.

He went to Heidelberg to collaborate with the chemist Ludwig Karl Martin Leonhard Albrecht Kossel (1853-1927), who became the 1910 Nobel Laureate in physiology or medicine

    ”in recognition of the contributions to our knowledge of cell chemistry made through his work on proteins, including the nucleic substances.”
Together they discovered arginase and Dakin proposed the concept that the primary action of enzyme consists in its labile attachment to the substrate. Dakin’s graduate studies at the Lister Institute in 1902, followed by his work with Albrecht Kossel at the University of Heidelberg, were made possible by the award of an 1851 Exhibition Grant. He received a doctorate in 1909.

In 1905 Christian Archibald Herter (1865-1910), the founder of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, invited him to work in his private laboratory in New York. This was one of the few research facilities devoted to the newly emerging science of biochemistry. When Herter died in 1910, Mrs. Herter requested that Dakin continue to direct the laboratory in New York, which he did, and also took over the editorial duties. In 1916 Dakin married Herter’s widow.

Dakin’s solution is an antiseptic solution continuing sodium hypochlorite and is used for treating infected wounds. First used during World War I, Dakin’s solution was the result of a sustained research effort and a collaboration with the surgeon and Nobel Laureate of 1912, Alexis Carrel, at a French military hospital, to find an ideal antiseptic wound dressing. More powerful bactericides, like those containing carbolic acid or iodine, either kills living cells or loose their effect when blood serum is present. Dakin’s solution has none of these disadvantages. Its effect on dead cells is such that it accelerates the separation of dead tissue from living.

Carrel concurrently set forth his system of wound management, which included mechanical cleansing, surgical debridement of injured and necrotic tissue, and adequate chemical sterilization by means of copious irrigation with Dakin's’ new antiseptic solution. Carrel also thought that a bacteriological smear of the wound should be taken daily and that secondary closure should not be performed until the cultures demonstrated complete absence of bacterial growth.

One of Dakin’s solutions involved the use of chloramine T, and he went to employ this substance for sterilisation of drinking water and organised and directed its use in the hospital ship Aquatania during the Gallipoli campaign.

Following the war, Dakin and his new wife moved their research facilities to a house with beautiful grounds overlooking the Hudson River, in Scarborough-on-Hudson, a quiet rural area some twenty miles from New York City. There he would take a daily constitutional walk with his Alsatian dogs, whom he adored, and there despite prohibition he made wines!

A distinguished chemist of international repute, Dakin was often visited in his Scarborough laboratory by notables from the international scientific community. He was presented with honorary degrees from Yale and the universities of Leeds and Heidelberg, elected a fellow of the Institute of Chemistry and the Royal Society, made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur and was awarded numerous medals for his scientific research.

Despite his elevated status, the retiring Dakin maintained a simple and secluded life-style that permitted him to devote most of his time to his work as a researcher. Dakin was an extremely honest and modest man who refused to speak in public, and in 1926, after he had submitted a paper about thyroxine to the Journal of Biological Chemistry, discovered that a former associate had independently reached similar conclusions, and so withdrew the paper. His nickname was "zyme". Dakin died in the winter of 1952, one year after the death of his wife.

Dakin was elected fellow of the Royal Society when he was aged 37, and was awarded the Davey Medal by that Society.

Dakin worked on the amino acid content of proteins and also the oxidative metabolism of fatty acids. He spent much energy and effort, together with a young clinician, attempting to isolate the anti-anaemic factor in liver, which had been demonstrated by George Richards Minot (1885-1950) and William Parry Murphy (born 1892). While working at the Jenner Institute Dakin synthesized the hormone adrenaline. Dakin also demonstrated the principle of enzyme stereo specificity, which states that a particular enzyme, distinguished by its individual structure or atomic configuration, will react with only specific class of molecule.

He examined the structure of certain proteins and showed that crystalline albumin of eggs from hens and duck differed greatly in their immunological specifications although their overall amino acid composition was very similar, and from his studies suggested a different distribution of the constituent amino acids in different proteins. In this he worked in collaboration with Sir Henry Hallett Dale and used to comment that «Dale and I proved that a hen was not a duck».


  • The oxidation of butyric acid by means of hydrogen peroxide with formation of acetone, aldehydes, and other products.
    Journal of Biological Chemistry, Baltimore, 1908, 4: 77-89.
  • Comparative studies of the mode of oxidation of phenyl derivates of fatty acids by the animal organism and by hydrogen peroxide.
    Journal of Biological Chemistry, Baltimore, 1908, 4: 419-435.
    Journal of Biological Chemistry, Baltimore, 1908, 5: 173-185.
    Journal of Biological Chemistry, Baltimore, 1909, 6: 203-243.
  • Oxidations and Reductions in the Animal Body.
    London, 1912. 2nd edition, 1922.
  • A Handbook on Antiseptics.
    With Edward. K. Dunham. New York, 1917.

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