He produced what became known as “Nicholson” charts, metabolic charts of the body that looked like maps of the London Underground, which made life much easier for biochemistry undergraduates and were reprinted in their millions.
Sixty years later, and less than three weeks before he died, he was still adding to them.
But the man who was to become such a world authority through his work as a senior lecturer in the Department of Microbiology at Leeds University did not to have an easy academic beginning.
Dr Nicholson was born in Leek, Staffordshire. He was one of three sons – he was a twin - of a Methodist minister, which meant they moved house every three years disrupting their schooling. He was educated at Kingswood School, in Bath, where he had to resit his School Certificate examinations, and then scraped a chemistry degree at Huddersfield Technical College. This was followed by a research post at ICI in Huddersfield and in 1941 he completed his PhD.
During the Second World War, he worked in the laboratories at Boots Drug Company in Nottingham on the development of large-scale production of sulphonamides, the first antibacterial drugs to be used effectively to treat infections. He described it as a “wonderful, wonderful experience, hugely exciting and important”.
Dr Nicholson also had a little known civil defence role as Nottingham’s Poison Gas Detection Officer. If the Luftwaffe had enveloped the city in a cloud of poison gas, it would have been his role to rush to its centre with his equipment, identify the particular compound and advise the civil defence authorities. It was virtually a suicide mission, and probably pointless, since as far as he was aware, the only facilities available to deal with it were a token couple of buckets of lime.
He left Boots in 1946 for an ICI research fellowship in chemotherapy at Leeds Medical School’s department of bacteriology where he went on to teach bacterial metabolism. It was his attempts at making the subject understandable to undergraduates that led him to create the first metabolic map.
This project was encouraged by Hans Krebs – who was later to win a Nobel Prize – at Sheffield, and he spent five years hand-drawing metabolic pathways charts using stencils and Indian ink on tracing paper. The blueprints were run off in the university architect’s office. When the first printed copies appeared in 1960, they received an enthusiastic reception from biochemists.
Although he did officially retire he never stopped working, continuing to update and extend his charts. When he was 80 he bought a computer and turned them into “Minimaps”, which were in a very popular format and freely available.
In recognition of his work he was honoured by his fellow biochemists becoming one of only two Special Life Members of the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In 1997 Huddersfield University became the only university to give him an honorary doctorate, a point which did not escape a foreign delegate at a conference which once remarked that, had he been French, he would have received the Légion d’honneur and a Nobel Prize.
His determination in life shone through when his twin brother Kenneth was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which at that time was virtually a death sentence. When Donald came across a newspaper article describing experimental work being done in America, he insisted that the family should demand the treatment, even though it was still experimental. His brother was one of the first guinea pigs for it, and survived to live for another 50 years.
When he moved to Leeds, Dr Nicholson became a prison visitor, and one lecture he gave so caught the prisoners’ imagination it led to a series of 25 talks. The material also formed the basis of the Teach Yourself volume on Science – subtitled , one of those distinctive books with yellow and black dustcovers found on most bookcases.
Dr Nicholson is survived by his brother Basil, his children, Rosemary, Roger and Ruth, three grandchildren and a great-grandson. His wife Celia predeceased him in 1996.
A Service of Thanksgiving for his life is to be held at a date to be fixed.