16th May 1947. Tryptophan.

Today in 1947 saw the death in Cambridge of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, the biochemist who in 1901 was the first to report the discovery of the Amino Acid, Tryptophan.

He discovered from experiments with rats that ingesting fats, protein and carbohydrates were not sufficient in themselves for survival and needed supplements of trace substances, what we now know as vitamins.

He also discovered that certain Amino Acids such as Tryptophan are the building blocks in protein production, but as they are not synthesised in the body, they are needed in the diet.

Tryptophan is important in maintaining a healthy gut and immune-system, but also as the precursor for the production of Seritonin, which maintains our mental equilibrium, and Niacin (Vitamin B3).(1)

However Tryptophan uses the same means of crossing the blood-brain barrier as other Amino Acids, but being the least abundant of the Acids has to compete for access to the brain. This is where Carbohydrates are important in the diet as they divert many Amino Acids to the muscles and other parts of the body.


This is especially important for a good night’s sleep as Tryptophan, amongst other things relaxes the mind, so anything which enables its better access to the brain is beneficial.

Thus it has been suggested that a carbohydrate snack before bedtime could be better than say a glass of milk for example, to calm the mind.

Hopkins didn’t have an easy passage to eminence, having started work in an insurance office, studying whilst working, before being employed in the ‘labs’ at Guy’s Hospital. London and then progressing to teaching physiology to medical students.

He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1905, and the first Professor of Biochemistry at Cambridge in 1914. In 1929 he received the Nobel Prize and rewarded with the Order of Merit in 1935. A truly British, but now largely forgotten, hero.

(1)  Which also includes Tyrosine and Lysine.

(1a) Indole is a compound from coal tar and indigo  and also produced by decomposition of Tryptophan in the intestine which gives faeces their typical odour. It is excreted in the urine as Indican.


Hopkins took 600 grams of crude Casein to produce 4-8 grams of tryptophan




draxe.com/Pic at top.





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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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