Professor A V Hill CH OBE FRS and Nobel Prize winner
Part 2 – The Nobel Period
The measurement of the various phases of heat production during muscle activity and recovery undertaken by Hill paralleled the biochemical studies being carried out in Germany by another physiologist, Otto Meyerhof. The two men, taking different approaches, threw new light on the same process – the production of mechanical work by a cycle of chemical reactions in a living muscle cell. Their work was recognised by the joint award made to them in 1923 of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, but for the year 1922 when no prize had been given. Among the many letters of congratulation received by Hill, was one from his old Headmaster at Blundell’s, A.L. Francis, who sadly stated ‘if only Thornton were alive to see this day’. AV’s Mathematics teacher had died seven years before.
Hill was appointed Professor at University College, London, in the autumn of 1923, and the family moved from Cambridge to Highgate where they were to remain for the next 44 years. The Royal Society made him Foulerton Research Professor, based at University College, in 1926, and in the same year he received a Royal Medal from the Society for his work on heat production during the passage of nerve impulses. This momentous year also saw the publication of one of his most popular books, Muscular Activity, as well as his appointment as one of the chief editors of the Journal of Physiology. To counteract this hectic lifestyle, the Hills acquired ‘Three Corners’ a secluded cottage at Cornwood, near Ivybridge, in his beloved Devon.
Although his post as Foulerton Professor did not require him to teach, enabling him to concentrate on research, he was always in demand by the Government for advice. Seeing the danger posed by Hitler’s regime, the Academic Assistance Council was formed in 1933 to help refugee scientists escaping persecution, one of its chief protagonists was AV Hill. Two years later he began to serve on the Tizard Committee, which was responsible for the initiation of radar and the development of an effective warning system. When war broke out in 1939 University College was evacuated, Hill’s laboratory closed and the staff dispersed to different wartime assignments. Early in 1940 the British Embassy he was sent to America as a ‘Supernumerary Air Attache’, his task being to try to ‘bring American scientists into the war before their government’. He was a member of the War Cabinet Scientific Advisory Committee (1940-1946), and Chairman of the Research Defence Society (1940-1951), as well as being the M.P. for Cambridge University for the duration of the conflict, serving as an Independent Conservative. Hill had been Secretary of the International Union of Physiologists since 1935, and in 1943 he visited India to compile a report on the state of science there, dealing especially with matters of medical education.
With the ending of War came a further succession of honours for Hill: he was made a Companion of Honour and was elected Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society in 1946, received the Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm from the U.S.A. in 1947, and in the following year he was awarded an honour of which he was undeniably most proud – the Copley Medal, granted by the Royal Society for distinguished achievement in any field of science, the Society’s highest award. University College set up its own Biophysics Department in 1951 with A.V. Hill at its head, until December when he ‘retired’, aged 65. But, for a man who had worked so relentlessly, retirement meant anything but a cessation of work. He became President of the British Association in 1952, and was secretary-general of the International Council of Scientific Unions from 1952 to 1956. He travelled the world extensively, and while at home in London fulfilled his role as President of the Society for Visiting Scientists most convivially. Nevertheless, he always had to time for Blundell’s. He came down to be President of the Old Blundellian Day in 1954, and joined in the celebrations of the School’s 350th anniversary. On this occasion he brought down some scientific apparatus which he thought may be of use in the laboratories.
AV was made President of the Old Blundellian Club in 1964, but from that year he suffered from increasing loss of mobility in his legs. This must have been a particularly loathsome condition for a man, whose daily routine had always begun at 7.15am with a brisk run. His son, Maurice, died in 1916, and AV and Margaret moved to Cambridge to share a house with his widow. He lost his beloved wife Margaret in 1970, and on June 3rd 1977, AV died, aged 90 – bringing to an end a wonderfully productive life. It was his wish that his more eminent medals should not be locked away, but should be displayed as an inspiration and encouragement to all Blundellians – ‘I want them to realise what can be achieved by one Blundellian can also be achieved by other Blundellians’.