Metabolic Pathways Chart: An All-Time Best-Seller

As an assist to his students back in 1960, microbiologist Donald Nicholson sketched out a big chart of metabolic pathways; he thought it would help them to have it pinned up on a wall for ready reference. Nicholson didn’t realize it at the time, but he was creating the first draft of what would eventually become an international best-seller— the most popular published work ever in biochemistry. The casually contrived wall chart—later whipped into formal presentability and g

By | October 31, 1988

As an assist to his students back in 1960, microbiologist Donald Nicholson sketched out a big chart of metabolic pathways; he thought it would help them to have it pinned up on a wall for ready reference.

Nicholson didn’t realize it at the time, but he was creating the first draft of what would eventually become an international best-seller— the most popular published work ever in biochemistry.

The casually contrived wall chart—later whipped into formal presentability and gussied up with appropriate graphic support—was to become the Metabolic Pathways Chart. So far, it has run through 16 editions, selling some 800,000 copies, and a 17th edition has just been issued.

Making Sense

Nicholson, now retired from his post as senior lecturer in microbiology at the University of Leeds in northern England, recalls, “I produced the first chart back in 1960 to help students make biological sense of biochemical pathways and enzymes, which they learned about individually but which they had difficulty in integrating.

By using different colors and by distinguishing sequences of reactions that break down foodstuffs from those that build up complex materials, I managed to highlight the often subtle interrelationships between different sectors of metabolism.”

Nicholson’s blend of detail and aesthetics has since been adapted for use in many textbooks. (Nobel laureate Hans Krebs, discoverer of the Krebs cycle—the centerpiece of aerobic metabolism—used the chart to illustrate his own textbook.) Henderson’s chart has even been tucked into educational kits; it has been framed and hung in the Biochemistry Gallery at the London Science Museum.

London-based Koch-Light Laboratories published the chart for many years, but chemicals and equipment supplier BDH Ltd. has now taken over for the 17th and future editions.

The chart has become increasingly colorful over the years, reflecting deepening knowledge of animal, plant, and microbial metabolism. Detail has also proliferated, with some 500 enzymes now identified by their reference numbers. But the new publisher believes that the recent 17th edition brings out the coherence of living chemistry at least as vividly as before.

The first wall charts sold for about $3.40 each back in 1960; the new 47” X 33" charts are priced at about $10.20 apiece.

—Bernard Dixon

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