Conway, Edward Joseph (1894–1968), biochemist, was born 3 July 1894 in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, son of William Francis Conway, a draper who came from farming stock, and Mary Anne Conway (née McCready), whose relatives had established the McCready Shoe Corporation in the United States. He attended the CBS in Nenagh before going on to Blackrock College with a first-class intermediate exhibition in experimental science and mathematics. After matriculation (1912) he entered the Cecilia St. medical school of UCD and intercalated a two-year course in physiology, taking a B.Sc. (1916) and M.Sc. (1917), before graduating MB, B.Ch., BAO (1921). Clinical medicine did not attract him and he joined James Malachy O'Connor (qv) (1886–1974) in the department of physiology and histology. After he was awarded a D.Sc. (1927) he spent a year in Embden's laboratory in Frankfurt am Main, and in 1932 was appointed the first professor of biochemistry and pharmacology in his alma mater.
He established an exceptionally fruitful research laboratory that uniquely attracted support from the Rockefeller Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the Medical Research Council of Ireland, which in 1959 made funds available for the establishment of a cell metabolism unit within the department of biochemistry at Merville House, on the rapidly expanding Belfield campus of University College. His research work began with an investigation of kidney function, in which he attempted to define the precise mechanisms of urine formation. To do so involved making innumerable chemical estimations on very small volumes of blood and urine, and he had to develop his own methods. So successfully did he overcome this practical problem that his microburette and diffusion unit became a standard method for a generation, and his Microdiffusion and volumetric error (1950) became the biochemist's vade mecum internationally.
From the kidney's role in achieving and maintaining the stability and content of body fluids, Conway progressed to an extended experimental and theoretical analysis of the equilibrium across the cell membrane which accounts for the dramatic difference in composition of the fluids inside and outside the cell, and his paper with Patrick J. Boyle in the Journal of Physiology (1941) became a benchmark in the progression of our knowledge of membrane potentials which are a characteristic of the living cell, and provide the basis for our understanding of electrical excitability. Later on, from a study of acid secretion by yeast cells he became interested in acid production in the stomach. This led him to link the respiratory processes of the cell with acid formation His redox pump theory, expounded in The biochemistry of gastric acid secretion (1953), was a forerunner of the chemio-osmotic hypothesis now believed to explain acid secretion. Science by its very nature is a dynamic process, and E. J. Conway's views on membrane equilibria and acid secretion were important stepping-stones for contemporary and later workers, including the Nobel laureates Hodgkin and Huxley (1963), Neher and Sakmann (1989), and Mitchell (1978).
The mathematical approach to biological problems was a feature of all Conway's work, from his early investigation of renal tubular function to his formidable analysis of the salinity of the ocean. With his abiding interest in the composition of body fluids, it was to be expected that he would examine critically the wild surmise that blood plasma was an oceanic remnant. Macalum's theory, published (1926) in Physiological Reviews, suggested that when early vertebrate forms emerged from the ocean the composition of sea-water and blood plasma was similar. In 1941 Conway began a series of papers in the RIA Proceedings on the palaeochemistry of the ocean, and by combining a mathematical approach with a remarkably wide range of information, he showed that at the relevant geological periods sea-water had thrice the salinity of mammalian plasma, and qualitatively it was very different. The romantic notion that Silurian seas still circulate in our blood vessels is without scientific foundation.
In 1947 Conway was elected fellow of the Royal Society of London, a valid indicator of the worldwide recognition which brought in lucrative grants. Dublin University awarded him an honorary D.Sc. (1952); the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland honoured with its fellowship (1953), as did the Royal Institute of Chemistry (1957). He became a member of the Académie Septentrionale (1958), the New York Academy of Sciences (1960), and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1961). In 1960 a symposium on ‘Regulation of inorganic ion content of cells’ was arranged in his honour by the Ciba Foundation in London, and in 1968 the RDS awarded him the coveted Boyle medal.
With international financial support he set up a highly productive scientific department, helped by a succession of accomplished assistants who subsequently achieved notable distinction. After he retired from the chair in 1963 he continued as director of the cell metabolism unit until he suffered a stroke at the end of 1967 while indulging his interest in fly-fishing at his holiday home at Lough Sheelin, Co. Cavan; he died on 29 December 1968. In 1953 he founded the Graduates Association of the National University of Ireland and promoted its associated publication, the University Review. He married (1934) Mabel Edith Hughes of Rugby, England; of their four daughters one, Dorothy (McGeeney), became a biologist. In Dublin he lived at Alexandra House, 26 Gilford Road, Sandymount, till 1934, after which he settled at Woodbank, St George's Avenue, Killiney, where his hospitality was enlivened by his accomplishment as a pianist.
E. J. Conway was one of Ireland's greatest modern scientists. The outstanding medical graduate of UCD, he did all his work in the college, and thereby he gained for the medical school an international reputation. That a native scientist working at home could do work worthy of international recognition was Conway's lasting and invaluable contribution to Irish science. The Conway Institute at UCD (officially opened 11 September 2003) is his fitting memorial. It houses his papers, a full bibliography of which can also be found in Maizels's 1969 memoir. His portrait, by George Collie (qv), is in the RIA.