Norman Pirie was a biochemist distinguished for his pioneering work on plant viruses, a crusading advocate for the dietary use of leaf protein and, more broadly, a man of science who wrote with force and lucidity on many scientific questions of his time.
Born: 1 July 1907, Easebourne, United Kingdom
Died: 29 March 1997, Harpenden, United Kingdom
Education: University of Cambridge
Books: Leaf Protein: And Its By-products in Human and Animal Nutrition
Awards: Copley Medal
He worked at Cambridge University until 1940, working with Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins. From 1932, he worked with Ashley Miles on the Brucella bacteria responsible for brucellosis, and with Frederick Bawden on potato viruses. They studied the tobacco mosaic virus, demonstrating that the virus contained ribonucleic acid (when others claimed they were just proteins
The collaboration continued following their move to Rothamsted Experimental Station in Harpenden, Bawden moving there in 1936 and Pirie in 1940. Here the scope of their work was extended and they accomplished the separation in semi-crystalline or crystalline form of 12 or more viruses or strains of viruses, including tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), and showed that they all contain nucleic acid of the type now called RNA, the genetic material of viruses. This was work of a high technical standard, and was, moreover, in a competitive area. Others, including W.M. Stanley, had previously claimed to have isolated TMV and made great reputations; but their preparations had few of the properties that we accept for TMV today.
Pirie’s mind was also well prepared for the striking semi-crystalline nature of concentrated suspensions of TMV. He delighted in the coloured sheens that appeared when the opalescent suspensions were swirled in a flask and viewed by polarised light. He correctly interpreted this streaming birefringence as the property of rod-like particles and used it to estimate their size. With characteristic flair, the birefringence was demonstrated at a Royal Society soiree when dilute suspensions of TMV were stirred by goldfish and sea horses. Pirie joked that, initially, suspensions of TMV were as popular with fish physiologists as with plant pathologists.
He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1949, delivered its Leeuwenhoek Lecture in 1963 and won its Copley Medal in 1971 for his virology work. He retired in 1972, but continued work on beta carotene in leaf proteins.Like his wife, he was an atheist, and was concerned about nuclear weapons. He served as chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) scientific committee for several years. His wife died in 1991. He died in Harpenden, survived by his two children.
Draft by- Prajakta Patankar