The lifesaving work of Evelyn Hickmans

A framed portrait of Evelyn Hickmans

Source: Photograph © Birmingham Children’s Hospital; Frame © Swindler & Swindler @ Folio Art

Anne Green tells us how a female chemist almost single-handedly established paediatric clinical chemistry and led to a first in global health

In 1951 a ‘chemically home-made’ mixture of amino acids changed the course of the lives for thousands of children with a previously untreatable and devastating disorder, phenylketonuria (PKU). This remarkable achievement, to produce a dietary protein substitute, was undertaken at Birmingham Children’s Hospital in the UK by two medical doctors and a female biochemist, Evelyn Hickmans. It was Hickmans’ laboratory, the first of its kind in England, and her expertise, both as a chemist and nutritionist, made this previously impossible task a reality and a world’s first. From a humble working-class background in England’s industrial Midlands, she pursued a long career that took her from Wolverhampton to Birmingham, London and Toronto before returning to Birmingham. For over 30 years, she combined the application of chemistry and nutrition for the benefit of children. Her work has been largely lost in the successes which have followed and in charting her journey we should celebrate her as one of the pioneer women in science.