Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Don Suddaby, real (and reel) chemist

A couple of weeks ago, In the Pipeline had a thread about the most "realistic depiction of a research chemist in some sort of popular entertainment". Sili chipped in with Lorenzo's Oil, which has both Augusto Odone's rather impassioned explanation of fatty acid synthesis and best of all, the depiction of a chemist, in the twilight of his career, purifying erucic acid (the titular oil of the movie.)

Don Suddaby was the chemist that did that remarkable work and he was asked to play himself in the movie. Mr. Suddaby worked for Croda International in the UK. According to an article by Steve Herman in Global Cosmetic Industry*:
Suddaby was a chemist with extensive experience in fatty acid chemistry. Within four months, working around the clock, Suddaby (who plays himself in the movie) prepared a liter of oil. The oil stabilized Lorenzo's condition, and more oil was needed both for Lorenzo and for other boys suffering from ALD.
The synthesis process was deemed too difficult for production of the needed quantities, and Croda tried a simpler composition, which proved even better than the previous oil... The details of the extraction and purification of Lorenzo's Oil can be found in the patent issued to Suddaby and Coupland, which is remarkably readable for a legal document.
The movie portrayal of Suddaby (YouTube, part 10, 4:21) is rather lovely (I love the closeup of a seemingly working distillation later in the film) and a nice write-up of his character is in a recent article by Xconomy's Stewart Lyman contrasting the current movie portrayal of the pharmaceutical industry with that in Lorenzo's Oil.

Mr. Suddaby appears to have passed on in 1993; I'm pleased that (thanks to Hollywood), we have some acknowledgement of his contribution to human health and also a very nice portrayal of a chemist on film. Now, if only we could get some more...

*Cosmetics & Compassion. By: Herman, Steve, Global Cosmetic Industry, 15239470, Jan2001, Vol. 168, Issue 1


  1. Why do we need "very nice" portrayals of chemists? Wouldn't portraying them as they are be of more benefit in the long run? How about this portrayal: You go to sporting goods store to buy an inexpensive bike to commute to work ($120). One day you leave work with it, and there is Ph.D. Columbia Kemist standing at the gate with his 178-speed. He sees your bike and sniffs "Is that YOUR bike? This isn't my good bike. My good bike is at home, IT COST $1000."
    Now THAT's an accurate portrayal of a chemist.

    1. Just came across this whilst showing a friend of mine clips of the late Don Suddaby,Not impressed about the way he is being written about,i knew this man for a number of years & he was in fact a very nice man,with a loving family,who i hope do not get to read this as i have done.

  2. I confess to not knowing what to say to that; true, chemists are no more or less materialistic than any other professional.

    Nevertheless, Mr. Suddaby's portrayal is both realistic and "nice" in that it shows chemists using their skills and knowledge to help people. I believe that's worth something.

  3. Ok, I'll rant one more time in explanation. The point
    I didn't make clear wasn't that some chemists are
    materialistic, it's that they pretentiously claim
    to be involved in the pharmaceutical industry to
    "save/improve lives" (or maybe just make better
    hair tonic...) and wear their degrees and their
    "pedigree" (a pretentious idea in itself) like
    a saint's halo, when in fact many of them are
    simply covetous, mindlessly competitive anti-intellecuals
    who ridicule anything they don't understand and
    who have never read a book they didn't have to
    for a course, put down any commentary if it isn't
    "peer reviewed" while simultaneously following
    idiotic diet books, all the while never recognizing
    the two or more compartments in their heads that
    aren't communicating with each other. It's the
    hypocrisy I was getting at. An accurate
    portrayal of pharmaceutical chemists would show
    them as evil in a comically petty and idiotic way,
    for example: the chemist who sold an outdated 25Mhz
    computer worth basically nothing to one of the union
    workers for $400, then comes into the lab and claps his hands
    and says gleefully "Hahaha, I fool(sic) him!"
    What does this have to do with a chemistry job blog? These
    people I've described are not only a drag to be around, the
    are company lifer mediocrities, taking up space when genuine
    intellectuals can't get a job.
    It sure was nice of the company to let an old man who
    is just hanging around for retirement and can barely move
    work on that silly life-saving project wasn't it? And is
    sure was great that none of the younger chemists volunteered
    to help, wasn't it? ("Why would I work on that? There's no
    cash bonus for it.") But I'm sure once he succeeded, a
    bunch of people down the hall wanted their name on the paper!

  4. No relation to the preceding Anonymous Poster.

    Hey Anonymous, chillax. Did you ever believe that the chemical industry was free of mediocre sycophants and schemers who relied on their academic pedigrees to gain employment? Besides, if you view your coworkers with such disdain, keep your interactions with them professional. If you want to find some truly arrogant, anti-intellectual, & sanctimonious "scientists", try dealing with MDs at a top-tier medical school.

  5. I think I'd rather socialise with chemists than the anonymous person who views them with such disdain.

  6. Oooh, that hurt. What's next, you're going
    to tell me that I'm not worthy to breed
    because I don't play on the chemistry
    department softball team? I think I'd rather
    socialize with chemists than an anonymous
    person who would rather socialize with chemists
    than another anonymous person who disdains

  7. Sounds like 'anonymous #1' has been dumnped by chemist. Can't blame the chemist, mind, he sounds like a total wanker.

  8. I like sausages, with egg, bacon and brown sauce. My local chemist helps me choose my required medicine as and when I need it. I'm for team chemist!

  9. i'm with all the positive comments on chemists and believe they deserve recognition like any other life aiding profession!!
    kris suddaby (yes,mr suddabys G.son)

  10. Don suddaby has a close named after him in hull there is also a road called lorenzo way these both are to do with the man and the oil he made they are in same little housing estate with a plaque to remember his work that helped do better for some people

  11. Without chemists there would not be life............

  12. Don Suddaby was my Research director at Smith and Nephew Research at Gilston in the late sixties. Without doubt a brilliant scientist, a good boss, but more importantly a great man, whose encouragement kept me in research for the next 30plus years.

  13. All movies should portray chemists as mean people because I met a mean chemist once.

  14. I'm sorry for the above argument at the top of the comments section. I was really drunk and an arsehole.

  15. Mr.Suddaby did a great and compassionate thing by distilling the erucic acid.
    That is all that needs to be said.

    Well done!

  16. Brilliant chap! if only there were rather more Don Suddabys in the World.

  17. I was upset that Big Ben was in the background of his Hull office.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20