Donald Nicholson and the charts

The Daily Telegraph carries an obituary today of Donald Nicholson, who lived to the ripe old age of 96. He it was who developed the wallcharts of metabolic pathways to be seen on many a medical student’s wall.
I confess I had never realised that the charts were the work of one man’s vision and labour from 1955 onwards, assuming somewhat naively that a drug company’s corporate muscle was responsible. But the best ideas always come from one mind, don’t they? Nicholson’s charts had a significant effect on me at university, since I saw them around the same time I learned about the then relatively newly understood role of protein enzymes in cell chemistry.

Even recently I read a piece by an older biologist who went through college with the assumption that life’s chemicals milled around in the cell reacting according to the biochemical dynamics of the test-tube. Enzymes as tailor-made catalysts introducing otherwise incompatible compounds into intimate and fruitful union more or less instantaneously seemed, and still seem, a complete cheat in naturalistic terms.

Seeing the global results of those individual magic reactions in Nicholson’s chart made me realisehow much more astronomically complicated and sophisticated life is than I had ever thought. I’ve never been able to take purely naturalistic explanations of life completely seriously since then. Sorry – it may be due to lack of imagination. But then again, it may be due to sufficiency of imagination.

Since the 1970s the Nicholson charts have grown in clarity, and in complexity as the science progressed. Here is a link to the latest version. As a view of how cells work it is, of course, grossly simplified, omitting the actual molecular structures whose interaction governs the cell’s functions. Compare, for example, the little blue section near the top on the right, relating to DNA, with any of the animated (and also simplified!) visualisations of DNA replication such as this. Small wonder that David Berlinski, asked what the cell should be compared to now, if the 1950s view of it was a Buick, replied, “A galaxy.”

Nicholson’s obituary says he developed the charts to help students gain a better understanding of how the complex bichemistry they were learning actually fitted together. I can’t say they actually helped me to pass any exams, maybe because the biochemistry exam questions had as reductionist an outlook as the teaching. If you knew about cyclic AMP and prostaglandins you were home and dry. Their effect on me was primarily religious – a good example of science informing faith, and of the exploration of God’s universe leading to worship, which is our role as his image in and for the world. I wasn’t instructed in that response – it arose spontaneously from seeing the chart on my friend’s wall. But it may not be unique. Paul Nelson writes:

I once heard Lynn Margulis say that she hated seeing central metabolism flowchart posters or diagrams taped up on laboratory office walls, because “people always get the wrong idea.”

“The wrong idea about what?” he adds.

But apart from science informing faith for me and, perhaps, Lynn Margulis’ errant juniors, could it be that Nicholson’s charts are also a case of that “impossible” thing, faith informing science? Donald Nicholson’s obituary says he was the son of a Methodist minister, was himslef a lay-preacher for 20 years, and remained an active member of the Progressive Christian Network. He’s not around to ask, but I just wonder if, apart from the commendable pedagogic desire to make students’ lives easier, the sense of wonder and worship that came out of those diagrams may partly be because wonder and worship went into them.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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