Hinshelwood, bacteria and biologists

Hinshelwood is a famous chemist (Nobel price for kinetics of chain reactions). He also spent the considerable time on research of the growth of bacterial cells. From his biography:

“Shortly before the 1939-45 war, Hinshelwood began work on the growth of bacterial cells. For some time he had been thinking about applying kinetic measurements and his knowledge of chain reactions to this subject. He was encouraged by talks with Dr R. L. Vollum, a colleague in pathology, and decided to make some experiments. This new adventure became his main scientific interest to the end, and although he continued to work also on more conventional chemical reactions in both gaseous and liquid phases, he published more than 130 papers on bacterial growth, and two books, Chemical kinetics of the bacterial cell (1946), and Growth, function and regulation in bacterial cells (with A. C. R. Dean) (1966).”

It should be noted that Hinshelwood has published papers on bacterial growth also in Science and Nature.

I am a chemist by background and when I have recently learned about Hinshelwood’s study on bacteria, I have read his second book:

A. C. R. Dean, C. Hinshelwood, Growth, function and regulation in bacterial cells, 1966.

I was surprised to find out that the book is based on numerous well-presented experiments on growth and adaptation of bacterial cells. Hinshelwood was an excellent experimenter and the discussion in the book is tightly bound to the experiments described. Well, the most experiments has shown the adaptive behavior of bacteria (some sort of lamarckism). Hinshelwood said that mutations and selections happen as well but it is rather an exception among bacteria rather than the rule.

Clearly, Hinshelwood’s results were in disagreement with what biologists used to say. Hence I would expect to find some papers from biologists where Hinshelwood’s results were discussed. To my next surprise I was unable to find such papers. Well, I have not read papers of that time, I just have observed that modern biologist just do not know about Hinshelwood’s research at all. It looks like that at Hinshelwood’s time the biologists have ignored his works and the next generations of biologists just did not know them.

If my guess is correct, it looks quite scandalous: biologists have ignored the experimental results because of the ideology (darwinism vs. lamarckism).

Papers that are related to my story:

M. Morange, What history tells us XV. Cyril Norman Hinshelwood (1897–1967) – A chemical dynamic vision of the organic world, J. Biosci. 33(5), December 2008, 669–672.

This was my starting point, but in my view the description of Hinshelwood’s research in the paper is rather incomplete.

Thompson, H. (1973). Cyril Norman Hinshelwood, 1897-1967. Biographical memoirs of fellows of the Royal Society. Royal Society (Great Britain), v. 19, 375-431.

A lovely written Hinshelwood’s biography. A quote at the beginning is from this paper.

This paper contains the full list of Hinshelwood’s publications including the study on bacterial growth.

William C Summers, From Enzyme Adaptation to Gene Regulation, Advances in Applied Microbiology, Volume 52, 2003, Pages 159-166

History of so called called “enzyme adaptation.” Hinshelwood is also considered.

Angela N. H. Creager, Adaptation or selection? Old issues and new stakes
in the postwar debates over bacterial drug resistance, Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 38 (2007) 159–190.

The paper describes the atmosphere of debates at those time. Hinshelwood’s works are also mentioned. The paper shows the influence of Lysenko’s affair in the USSR on the debates.

Silver, S. (2014). Beyond the fringe: when science moves from innovative to nonsense. Fems Microbiology Letters, v. 350(1), 2-8.

This papers shows that the biologists knew about Hinshelwood’s work. Simon Silver was at the university including PhD in 1954-1962. Hence he was a witness of the fight between Hinshelwood and biologist. You should read what he writes about Hinshelwood. Interestingly enough he has not made a single reference to the papers of biologists from that time where Hinshelwood’s work was proved to be wrong.

Angela Oliveira Pisco, Aymeric Fouquier d’Herouel, Sui Huang, Conceptual Confusion: the case of Epigenetics, Preprint, 2016.

This paper is about epigenetics. This is the statement about Hinshelwood:

‘In the ensuing climate of gene-centric thinking, a lone outlier was Sir Cyril Hinshelwood who after his Nobel award in Chemistry in 1956 devoted his scientific efforts to the study of (transient) non-genetic inheritance in bacteria. While not explicitly using the term epigenetics, Hinshelwood proposed reaction patterns, similar to Nanney’s steady states, established by intracellular chemical reaction networks within a cell that “exhibit slow reversion”, i.e., persist over multiple generations and hence can engender a memory that mediates non-genetic inheritance. Hinshelwood’s work has almost completely been overlooked by historians of biology, let alone by its practitioners; however, research along similar lines of reasoning has in the past years gained traction with the rediscovery that non-genetic persisters play a role in accelerating the evolution of bacterial resistance to antibiotics and of cancer cell resistance to chemotherapy.’


On Google Scholar you will find a list of Hinshelwood’s work.