Arthur John Birch. 3 August 1915 — 8 December 1995

Rodney W. Rickards, John Cornforth

Elected FRS 1958


Arthur John Birch AC CMG FAA FRS was one of the great masters of organic chemistry of the twentieth century. His extraordinary creativity left its imprint across the breadth of the subject in its broadest sense, from synthesis to biochemistry to organometallic chemistry. He remains best known for the reaction that bears his name, the Birch reduction of aromatic compounds by solutions of sodium and ethanol in liquid ammonia. This process has wide application, most notably in the commercial synthesis of oral contraceptives, giving rise to his being called ‘the father of the pill’, although he himself preferred the more remote ‘grandfather’ relationship. His polyketide theory, which accounts for the biosynthetic origins of a wide range of natural products, is less widely acknowledged today simply because it has become absorbed into the accepted knowledge base of the subject. His final researches on the use of diene iron tricarbonyl derivatives in synthesis are equally distinguished and have prompted others to extend their application. During his career he was involved in the design of three new university chemistry buildings, one of which now bears his name, and contributed influential advice to governments on national science policies.