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Albert, Adrien (1907–1989)

by D. J. Brown

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Adrien Albert (1907-1989), medical chemist, was born on 19 November 1907 in Sydney, only son of Jacques Albert, a music publisher from Switzerland, and his third wife Mary Eliza Blanche, née Allan, who was born in Victoria. His parents separated and his father died when he was a small child. Adrien attended primary schools at Randwick and Coogee, and, on a scholarship, Scots College. After passing botany (1926), chemistry (1926) and materia medica (1927) at the University of Sydney, he was registered as a pharmacist on 12 February 1929. However, the business aspects of pharmacy did not appeal to him and he soon returned to the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1933), where he graduated with first-class honours and the university medal in pharmaceutical science. He worked briefly at the university and then for a fabric-dyeing firm to accumulate funds for postgraduate study in London. Arriving there in 1934, he undertook research with W. H. Linnell at the College of the Pharmaceutical Society, University of London. Despite recurrent illness, he received his Ph.D. in 1937 for synthetic work on acridine antiseptics, a pointer to his future focus on heterocyclic and medicinal chemistry.

Back at the University of Sydney in 1938, Albert enjoyed reasonable research facilities as a lecturer in organic chemistry. During World War II he collaborated with John Earl in the industrial-scale preparation of the antiseptic proflavine, required urgently in the Pacific war zone. He also developed practical syntheses for the antimalarial drug mepacrine (Atebrin), then in equally desperate demand, and for a new and improved antiseptic, aminacrine (Monacrine), that replaced proflavine later in the war.

The National Health and Medical Research Council began to fund Albert’s research in 1944 and he quickly built up a `chemotherapy team’ to study the relationship between the structure and activity of synthetic antimicrobial agents. For this and earlier work, subsequently reviewed in his book The Acridines (1951), the University of London awarded him a D.Sc. (1948). He was a research fellow (1947-48) at the Wellcome Research Institution, London, before being appointed foundation professor of medical chemistry at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University, in 1949. As no building was yet available in Canberra, he inaugurated his department in hired laboratories in London, where fundamental work on pteridines and the like (mainly as anti-cancer agents) was soon under way. The department moved to Canberra in 1956.

Meanwhile, Albert had been developing a novel concept, known as selective toxicity, to explain the ability of chemical substances to affect certain cells without harming others, applying the principle not only to human and veterinary medicine, but to pesticides and herbicides. He first enunciated this in a series of public lectures at University College, London, in 1948, followed by the small first edition of Selective Toxicity (1951); the concept, probably Albert’s greatest contribution to the progress of medicinal chemistry, was gradually extended over the next thirty-five years, culminating in the massive seventh edition (1985) and a companion book, Xenobiosis (1987).

Although Albert’s primary interest lay in how and why medicinal substances exerted their effects, his studies necessarily involved the preparation of myriad new and diverse heterocyclic compounds, which form the basis of nearly all modern ethical drugs. He and his colleagues became expert in the synthetic procedures required and in the physical chemistry associated with such products. Indeed, a high proportion of the original publications from his department involved pure chemistry and appeared in leading chemical journals. Albert sought unifying threads for this work in his substantial book Heterocyclic Chemistry (1959), of which the second edition (1968) proved invaluable as a specialised text for advanced students.

In 1973 Albert began an active retirement as visiting fellow, initially in the Research School of Chemistry and subsequently in the Department of Chemistry at the ANU, where he continued his research and writing with unabated vigour. He spent several periods as research professor in the department of pharmacological sciences at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, where his constantly updated lecture series on selective toxicity was especially valued.

A prodigious worker in the laboratory, Albert produced six books and more than 230 papers. He continually organised his own and his staff’s time, but he disliked administration and its cessation was the only good aspect of retirement evident to him. Due to a gastrectomy, which followed a botched emergency operation in London during his postgraduate days, he was unable to get to work before 10 a.m., but he remained there until late at night, even on weekends. He was an excellent teacher of undergraduates, although he only made time for such activity in the late 1930s and in retirement.

Albert was a tall, thin person who invariably dressed carefully and, in his earlier days, fashionably. He had a very complex personality—even to his senior staff and colleagues he could be flatteringly courteous one day but tersely hypercritical the next. Thus, most co-workers appreciated his scientific acumen and integrity but only those who were willing to make many allowances ever classed themselves as friends. As a young man, he was mildly misogynistic, believing that a woman’s place was in the home or in a secretarial role. He never married, having decided that a wife and family would use up too much valuable research time.

Providing there was a worthwhile conference or contact at the end of each journey, Albert was an inveterate traveller. He lectured in almost every country where medicinal chemistry was practised; he became reasonably proficient in German, French and Italian and had some knowledge of other European languages. Although research dominated his life, he was an accomplished pianist, a knowledgable music-lover, and a skilful cartoonist and photographer. He occasionally wrote poetry that was quite moving. Unusual plants and flowers fascinated him and overseas visitors were often taken on short bushwalks to admire Canberra’s native flora.

Among his many honours and awards, Albert most appreciated being elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1958), appointed AO (1989), and invited to accept an honorary D.Sc. from the University of Sydney (conferred posthumously, 1990). He died on 29 December 1989 at Woden Valley Hospital, Canberra, and was cremated with Anglican rites. His memory is maintained by Adrien Albert lectures in London and New York, as well as in Australia; the medicinal chemistry laboratory at the University of Sydney was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Journal of Chemical Education, vol 63, no 10, 1986, p 860
  • Chemistry in Australia, vol 57, no 4, 1990, p 116
  • D. J. Brown, `Adrien Albert 1907-1989’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 8, no 2, 1990, p 63, and for publications
  • Albert papers (Australian Academy of Science Library, Canberra).

Citation details

D. J. Brown, 'Albert, Adrien (1907–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 4 March 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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