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Norman Wingate (Bill) Pirie FRS[1] (1 July 1907 – 29 March 1997), was a British biochemist and virologist who, along with Frederick Bawden, discovered that a virus can be crystallized by isolating tomato bushy stunt virus in 1936. This was an important milestone in understanding DNA and RNA.[2]

Norman Pirie
Born1 July 1907
Died29 March 1997 (1997-03-30) (aged 89)
Alma materCambridge University
Known forcrystallization of [tomato bushy stunt virus]
AwardsCopley Medal in 1971
Scientific career
InstitutionsRothamsted Experimental Station

Early lifeEdit

Pirie was born in Easebourne, near Midhurst in West Sussex, the youngest of three children of Sir George Pirie, a Scottish painter, and his wife while they were on a visit to England. He was raised near Torrance, East Dunbartonshire.[3] He developed a stammer, and was educated by private tutors and then spent periods at Kelvinside Academy in Glasgow, Harriston School near Dumfries, and Hastings Grammar School, and then from 1921 to 1925 at Rydal School in Colwyn Bay. He studied natural sciences (biochemistry) at Emmanuel College, Cambridge from 1925 to 1929, and became a demonstrator after graduating. He married fellow biochemist Antoinette (Tony) Patey in 1931. They had a son and a daughter.[4]


He worked at Cambridge University until 1940, working with Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins. From 1932, he worked with Ashley Miles on the Brucella bacteria responsible for brucellosis, and with Frederick Bawden on potato viruses. They studied the tobacco mosaic virus, demonstrating that the virus contained ribonucleic acid (when others claimed they were just proteins). Bawden moved to Rothamsted Experimental Station in Harpenden in 1936, and Pirie also moved to Rothamsted as a virus physiologist in 1940, becoming head of the biochemistry department in 1947. During the Second World War, Pirie investigated the possibility of extracting edible proteins from leaves. Experiments on extracting edible leaf proteins continued into the 1970s.[4]

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1949, delivered its Leeuwenhoek Lecture in 1963 and won its Copley Medal in 1971 for his virology work. He retired in 1972, but continued work on beta carotene in leaf proteins.

Like his wife, he was an atheist, and was concerned about nuclear weapons. He served as chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) scientific committee for several years. His wife died in 1991. He died in Harpenden, survived by his two children.[4]


  1. ^ Pierpoint, W. S. (1999). "Norman Wingate Pirie. 1 July 1907 - 29 March 1997: Elected F.R.S. 1949". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 45: 397. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1999.0027.
  2. ^ Fowden, L.; Pierpoint, S. (1997). "Norman Pirie (1907-97)". Nature. 387 (6633): 560. doi:10.1038/42378. PMID 9177338.
  3. ^ Pierpoint, W. S. (1997-04-22). "Obituary: Norman Pirie". The Independent. London. Retrieved 2012-05-01.
  4. ^ a b c David F. Smith, ‘Pirie, Norman Wingate [Bill] (1907–1997)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2005 accessed 23 Dec 2013

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