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Benjamin Moore FRS (1867 - 1922):
Scientist: biochemist

Benjamin Moore was active in a number of scientific disciplines but his ground-breaking work in biochemistry led to him being appointed the first Professor of Biochemistry anywhere in the British Isles. He was also a farsighted thinker on public health, not least, but not confined to, the problem of tuberculosis, and was calling for a national health service decades before this came into being.

Moore was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire (near Glasgow), though his parents were of Ulster origins; his father, William Moore, inherited his father’s grocery shop in Conway Street, west Belfast in 1874. Benjamin was educated at Belfast Model School, and also took evening classes at the Belfast Working Men’s Institute. He was an excellent student who won two Mayor of Belfast prizes for overall achievement (1886 and 1887), subject prizes in chemistry, mathematics and philosophy, and a scholarship, worth £115, which allowed him to enter Queen’s College, Belfast for the academic year commencing 1887.

His primary ambition was to study engineering, which had a wide syllabus which included mathematics, physics, chemistry and physiology along with engineering. His academic performance through Queen’s was highly successful, winning a number of prizes and scholarships, and graduated BA in experimental physics in 1890, with first class honours, BEng  (Bachelor of Engineering) in 1891 and MA in 1892. His especially thorough knowledge of chemistry impelled to favour this field over engineering and he proceeded Germany, then the centre of chemistry studies. He was awarded a special travelling scholarship and enrolled at the University of Leipzig, where he studied under Professor Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald (who would become a Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1909). He was in Leipzig until 1894, when he relocated to University College, London where as on the teaching staff of the chemistry department, and also came into contact with Sir William Ramsay and Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer, who were conducting groundbreaking research in physiology and pharmacology. Given the close relationship between UCL and University College Hospital, Moore concentrated on physiology studies until 1894, when he crossed the Atlantic to take the post of associate professor of physiology at Yale University Medical School.

He returned to London as Lecturer in Physiology at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, London, and in 1902 was appointed to the new Johnston Chair in Bio-Chemistry at the University of Liverpool. This Chair was made possible financially by an endowment from William Johnston, a wealthy shipowner originally from Ulster (the endowment also funded the Johnston Laboratories in the same University). Moore’s interests were broad, and he was a prolific publisher, especially in the journal he co-founded (with Edward Whitley) in 1906, The Bio-Chemical Journal. His work in Liverpool was recognised when he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1912. He also took an interest in the public health of a city which suffered greatly from destitution and overcrowded slum housing, with consequent health problems; he was highly critical of the Poor Law hospitals, and in one of his publications even proposed the establishment of a National Medical Service. He was especially concerned with the high levels of tuberculosis, and backed as methods of tackling these, methods and practices such as segregation and compulsory notification, the latter including compulsory examination at ports entry to the United Kingdom, of all seeking to immigrate. These proposals were published in a widely-noted book, The Dawn of the Health Age (1911). This is nothing else than a thorough critique of the then-prevalent system of health care. And he is clear to where he thinks the solution would lie: in a system, organised on a national basis which would completely revolutionise health provision. The style and tone are polemic, with chapter titles such as “The Follies of our Present Public Health Service”, or “Our Hospital Systems: Their Evils and Abuses”. He inveighs against homeopathy and faith-healing as “claptrap”, and states that disease should be “attacked on scientific principles instead of being dallied with as at present.” His imagery is rather belligerent, as when he describes how ninety per cent of registered medical practitioners are conducting a mere “guerrilla warfare” against illness, whereas they should properly be “organised in a great service carrying out measures on the offensive against disease”.  Much critical reception was positive and the book was certainly noticed – not least in Ulster where it praised by the Belfast Telegraph and other publications in regions where tuberculosis was most prevalent. As an interesting note, although he generally writes of his proposed system as a nationwide medical service, he also describes it as a “National Health Service”, using that precise nomenclature (page 181 for example).

During the First World War he worked for the Medical Research Council in London. One of his interests was in the incidence of tuberculosis in factory workers, which he linked to the materials produced in war produce. He proposed the establishment of Industrial Health Medical Service, not dissimilar to the later Occupational Health Service in operation in Northern Ireland.

In 1920 he was appointed to the new Whitley Chair of Biochemistry at Oxford University. Edward Whitley endowed this Chair, and even became Moore’s assistant. Unfortunately, Moore was not remain there for long, as he contracted influenza and suffered liver failure early in 1922, and died in March. His wife, Edith Francis, whom he married in 1898, had predeceased him in 1913. A grandson, Ben Moore, biographised him in 2010, in Benjamin Moore FRS, Biochemist, Doctor and Medical Reformer. 

Besides his Fellowship of the Royal Society, Moore was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science by Queen’s University, Belfast in 1901, was a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians. Generally highly regarded, one dissenting opinion appeared in 1990, describing him as “undistinguished”, though the facts would seem to contradict this strongly. In the obituary published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the author, FG Hopkins wrote: “The progress of biochemistry in the first twenty years of this century owed much to his stimulating publications and to his personal influence over his colleagues and pupils.” 


Born: 14 January 1867
Died: 3 March 1922
Richard Froggatt

Robin Agnew: “Benjamin Moore FRS (1867-1922)”, Ulster Medical Journal, 82(1): 31-34 (2013); Benjamin Moore: The Dawn of the Health Age (1911: available at http://archive.org/stream/dawnofhealthage); JS Fruton: Contrasts in Scientific Style, American Philosophical Society, 1990; FG Hopkins, “Benjamin Moore”, obituary notice, Proc Roy Soc Lond B 101: xvii-xix (1927 [quoted Agnew, op cit])