Norman Edson

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Norman L Edson
Norman edson.jpg
Born 1 March 1904
Died 12 May 1970 (aged 66)
Nationality New Zealand
Fields Biochemistry

University of Otago,

University of Cambridge
Alma mater University of Otago
Known for

Ketone body metabolism, Metabolic pathways of mycobacteria,

Polyol metabolism
Notable awards

Beit Memorial Fellowship,

Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand
Spouse Suzanne Moor

Norman Lowther Edson FRSNZ (1 March 1904 – 12 May 1970) was the first Professor of Biochemistry (1949–1967) at the University of Otago School of Medicine, Dunedin, New Zealand. He founded a modern department of biochemistry with high standards of teaching and research. Edson was an outstanding teacher. He made important contributions to the understanding of ketone body metabolism in animals, metabolic pathways of Mycobacteria and specificity rules for polyol dehydrogenases. He was a member of the enquiry commission on the fluoridation of the New Zealand public water supply.[1]

Early life[edit]

Edson was the only child of Norman Percival Edson (1868–1908), a pharmacist, and Phoebe, née Moses, a photographic colourist. His father died when he was a child. At Auckland Grammar School Edson won a Junior National Scholarship (1921) and was in the top ten Scholars for New Zealand.[2] When he entered the University of Otago School of Medicine in 1922, his mother moved to Dunedin to housekeep for him. In 1927 he was the first student to receive a Bachelor of Medical Science degree (BMedSc) and graduated MB ChB with honours.[3] Edson excelled at hockey and represented his school, university, province and New Zealand.[4]

Marriage and family[edit]

Edson married Suzanne Moor (1917–2009), a medical student, in 1938. Edson was 34, Suzanne 21. They had three children.

Postgraduate education[edit]

After graduating Edson spent two years jointly in the Departments of Chemistry and of Physiology at Otago University and received a Certificate of Proficiency in Chemistry in 1932 with a thesis on catalysis of oxybenzoic acids.[5] As Assistant Lecturer in Physiology he taught biochemistry and published two papers in the field.[6]

When Edson won a Beit Memorial Medical Fellowship in 1933 he decided to spend time at Cambridge University in the Sir William Dunn Institute of Biochemistry headed by Frederick Gowland Hopkins, then a pioneering centre of biochemistry. Edson was Hans Adolf Krebs's first PhD student. He spent two, instead of the usual three, years of the PhD in Cambridge (Emmanuel College), as his mother's ill health required an early return to New Zealand in 1936. His thesis, Studies in Intermediary Metabolism, gained him his PhD in December 1936.[7]

In Cambridge, under Krebs’ mentorship Edson conducted an extensive investigation on the metabolism of ketone bodies, substances produced in excess by humans during starvation or undiagnosed diabetes. Some of these studies (Edson and Leloir, 1936)[8] were a link in a chain of experiments leading to Krebs' 1937 proposal of the citric acid cycle. During the same period Edson identified the product of purine ring formation in pigeon liver as hypoxanthine, which was converted to uric acid in the liver (Edson, Krebs and model,1936; Edson,1946).[9] A derivative of hypoxanthine was subsequently shown by others to be the key product of purine biosynthesis. Krebs became Edson's lifelong friend, a long-range source of scientific advice, a host for his future postgraduate students and his own sabbatical in 1956 (see Krebs, 1981).[10] Edson also befriended Luis Federico Leloir to whom he dedicated his 1966 paper on glucogenesis from sorbitol to celebrate Leloir's 60th birthday.[11]

Academic life in New Zealand[edit]

Upon his return from Cambridge Edson was appointed Lectuter in Biochemistry at the University of Otago Medical School. Single-handedly he set up a modern biochemistry department which carried out world-class teaching and research. Initially he provided his own equipment and chemicals but later was supported by the Travis Trust for Tuberculosis Research. Fortunately in 1943 John Eccles, a noted neurophysiologist, was appointed to the chair of physiology. Eccles recognised Edson's talents and gave him full support in his enterprises (Eccles, 1977).[12] Gradually Edson recruited a small staff and a number of research students who assisted in his teaching and research. He was a sympathetic mentor of graduate students, allowing a great deal of freedom while being encouraging and supportive.

His early work in New Zealand was devoted to the delineation of metabolic pathways of Mycobacteria, relatives of the tuberculosis bacterium. He used the innovative approach of studying cell extracts which gave a clearer picture of bacterial metabolic pathways than whole cells, then currently in use (Edson, 1951).[13]

In the 1950s he and his students turned their attention to the metabolism of the polyols (sugar alcohols). They carried out an extensive survey of the diversity of the polyol dehydrogenases and determined rules for the steric specificity of these enzymes. (McCorkindale and Edson, 1954; Arcus and Edson, 1956).[14]

Edson was an inspiring teacher with both breadth and depth in his approach to biochemistry. His lectures did not simply present the existing body of knowledge but gave a historical perspective of the development of the field, including wrong roads taken. They were, in fact, lessons in research strategy for future investigators. Edson inspired many young people to take up biochemistry. Many of his pupils subsequently went on to hold leading positions all over the world. Allan C. Wilson, the pioneer molecular evolutionist, was a graduate of the Otago biochemistry department.


  1. ^ Batt, R.D., "Norman Lowther Edson 1904–1970". Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 1970. 99: 106–110.
  2. ^ Trembarth, K.A., Ad Augusta Per Angusta: A Centennial History of Auckland Grammar School 1869–1969. 1969, Auckland: Auckland Grammar School Old Boy's Association.
  3. ^ Carmalt Jones, D.W., Annals of the University of Otago Medical School 1875–1939. 1945, Wellington: Reed.
  4. ^ Otago University Students Association, Men's Hockey. Otago University Review, 1926–28, 1932.
  5. ^ Edson, N.L., "Catalytic hydrogenation of oxybenzoic acids", in Chemistry. 1932, Otago University.
  6. ^ Edson, N.L., "The catalytic hydrogenation of the hydroxybenzoic acids in aqueous solution". Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry, 1934. 53(19): p. 138-139.Edson, N.L., "The liver pigments of New Zealand oysters and toheroas". New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology, 1934. 15(6): p. 395-397.
  7. ^ Edson, N.L., "Studies in Intermediary Metabolism", in Faculty of Biology 'B'. Biochemistry. 1936, Cambridge: Cambridge.
  8. ^ Edson, N.L. and L.F. LeLoir, 1936. Ketogenesis-antiketogenesis: Metabolism of ketone bodies. Biochem. J., . 30: 2319– PMID 16746295]
  9. ^ Edson N.L., Krebs H.A. and Model A. 1936 The synthesis of uric acid in the avian organism: Hypoxanthine as an intermediary metabolite. Biochem. J. 30: 1380–1385; Edson N.L.1946 Biological synthesis of purines and pyrimidines. Aust. J. Sci. 9:102–107
  10. ^ Krebs H.A. 1981 "Reminiscences and Reflections", Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  11. ^ Loten, E.G., I.L. MacGregor, and N.L. Edson, "Glucogenesis from sorbitol U-14C in liver slices of starved rats". Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, 1966. 116: p. 352-357.
  12. ^ Eccles J.C. 1977 My Scientific Odyssey Ann. Rev. Physiol. 39: 1–18.
  13. ^ Edson N.L. 1951 The intermediate metabolism of mycobacteria. Bacteriol. Rev. 15:147–182. [ PMID 14886295]
  14. ^ McCorkindale J. and Edson N.L. 1954 Polyol dehydrogenases. 1. The specificity of rat liver polyol dehydrogenase. Biochem. J. 57, 518–523 [ PMID 13181869] §; Arcus A.C and Edson N.L 1956 Polyol dehydrogenases. 2. The polyol dehydrogenases of Acetobacter suboxydans and Candida utilis. Biochem. J. 64, 385–394.[ PMID 13373782]