Friday, 20 November 2020

Britain has lost, but Wales was the nation which made and anointed the future Prince of Solid-State Chemistry, John Meurig Thomas

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John, who has died at the age of 87, was one of the greatest British scientists in recent decades who was known worldwide for his research achievements in solid state chemistry and catalytic science. He was both inspirational and eloquent in his expression of the elegance and utility of science beyond the world of academia through his lectures, articles, reviews and books.

Although he left Wales at the age of 46 in 1978, after working at the Universities of Bangor and Aberystwyth, to become Professor and Head of Chemistry at Cambridge, it was in Wales that he spent his formative years in the 1940s and early 50s, as a child, a grammar school boy and university undergraduate. It was here that he was made as he was influenced, in turn, by his father, the chapel, his Physics teacher, the popular science writings of J.B.S. Haldane, Dorothy Crowfoot and Eric James and the examples of his hero and lodestar, Michael Faraday and the Principal of University College Swansea, John Fulton. From his mother he gained his prodigious memory. With all his success in solid-state chemistry, John paid tribute to all of them when he said that his greatest achievement had been "to combine being a teacher, a researcher and a populariser of science over 50 years".

He was born, the son of Edyth and David, in the winter 1932, in small mining village between  Llanelli and Camarthen, South Wales and grew up in a family of seven in the Gwendraeth Valley. He recalled the area with great affection : "It's an area where the coalmines run out and where beyond that valley you come to the agricultural  areas of Carmarthen and they're beautiful. It's the setting of Dylan Thomas's Fern Hill, for example". He was proud of his solid, Welsh, working class stock : his maternal grandfather was a gardener in the Swansea valley and paternal grandfather was a farmer and engine driver in Carmarthen. His own was a coal miner and fiercely intelligent man, who rose to the position of 'overman' in his colliery, but was barred from management through lack of formal education He had a profound influence on John as a boy and he recalled : "He taught me a great deal; he had great linguistic skills but was quiet hopeless mathematically". His mother, on the other hand, who spoke to him throughout her life only in Welsh, had no linguistic skills, but did have a formidable memory.

His father clearly did not fight shy of talking about his service in the Welsh Division in the First World to his son, since John recorded that War had influenced him profoundly and said : "It was his university". He fought on the Western Front at the Battle of the Somme, on the Greek Island of Patmos and in North Africa and must have been a warrant officer, since he received the Military Cross at Gallipoli in 1915, as a recognition of his 'distinguished and meritorious service in battle in situations'. 

John recalled that the : "thing I took a great interest in at a very early age and induced by my father, was bird watching. He knew all the birds there were in that area and could tell how the skylark went about its nesting and how the nightingale sometimes came very, very rarely to that part of the world". He also collected birds eggs, but very responsibly, only taking one egg when there were five or six. 

"The Welsh words for birds; the dipper is called the 'yr aderyn trochi', the 'black bird of the water'. The jays, they're called an onomatopoeic
description, 'sgrech y coed', which means the 'terrible screeching of the bird'. That's exactly what it does. Its not a  mellifluous bird, from the point of view of its song."

He acknowledged the influence of the power of the Methodist chapel over him both in its music and language : "The chapels in South Wales where brilliant  places for getting 'Elijah', 'The Messiah', 'Judas Maccabaeus'. I was about six when I heard the choir in the chapel and all the congregation sing "The heavens are telling, the glory of God", in 'The Creation'. Fabulous". Over 70 years later, in 2014 when he became the President of the National Eisteddfod of Wales, in his address he declared: “I am proud, indeed I rejoice in the fact of my being a Welshman. It was in the chapel that I learned to be an academic by listening to and analysing very many powerful sermons.”

He recalled that in 1942 : "My father decided, when I was ten, that my English was so atrociously bad and was petrified with the idea that I might not pass my 11+ , he expressed a very firm imperious edict : "From now on I speak to you in English and you answer in English". Which is what I did until the day he died in 1954".

John gained his selective, fee-paying place in secondary education and remembered : "What was so nice about Gwendraeth Grammar School, was that there was a mingling of the sons and daughters of farmers and rural agricultural communities and the sons and daughters of coal miners and there was a big contrast. The former class were rather lugubrious and slow, very matter of fact, didn't really rush to things. While the latter were, in that respect, the sons and daughters of coal miners, because they were in danger all the time, were much more alert. Much more alert and quick witted".  

John had nothing but praise for the quality of teaching at the school and had 
particular praise for his Physics teacher, Irene James, in whose lessons “the flame of science was lit in my heart and in my mind”. She "had the gift of, not just telling us what physics was about, but mentioning to you what Isaac Newton was like, the great Lord Brayley, Michael Faraday, of course. He became my hero at the age of 14, 15. The greatest joy for me, much much later, was to occupy the chair that was created for him". (John became Director of the Royal Institution at the age of 54 in 1986).  John recalled that he was "enthralled" and "in awe of Faraday from that moment onward.” 

" He left a greater corpus of scientific knowledge after his death than any other scientist and yet he left school at 13, equipped only with reading writing and arithmetic, became a bookseller's apprentice. At the age of 21 he was going to literary debating societies in London. He heard Humphry Davy lecture at the Royal Institution. It transformed his life. He decided to become a scientist at 21. By the age of 34 he was a Fellow of the Royal Society and by the age of 50 he was a Fellow of all the academies of the world".

The volumes of H.G.Wells 'Outline History of the World' were also a favourite with John, but they were eclipsed in influence by the writings of J.B.S. Haldane "an ardent Communist and wrote articles in the 'Daily Worker'". John recalled : "In the barber's shop where I grew up the local Communist, one of several passionate, well-informed individuals, would deliver the 'Daily Worker' free of charge every morning to the three barber's shops". It was here that he discovered Haldane's articles and remembered that : "He wrote in such authoritative terms about : 'Why is there so much iron in the body ?' He described haemoglobin." 

'Haemoglobin is of a deep purple colour. If you want to see the colour, prick your finger or ear lobe and let it bleed into some water till you have a nice clear red fluid. Put this in a small bottle and add a crystal of sodium hydrosulphite (not hyposulphite). This will combine with the oxygen and the liquid will turn purple.'

"There was a wonderful one on 'Being the right size'. If you were to drop a mouse down a well it would drop 20 feet then run away. Try doing the same with an elephant. How it was the stretch of your bones, rather than dimensions. 'How do you lose heat ?' He was a scientist and he would talk about the atmosphere of the planets. He induced my interest in science through that adventitious paper in the barber's shop".

John gained another source of inspiration in science in Mee's 'Children's Encyclopedia' where he "pondered on a writer, Dorothy Crowfoot, who turned out to be Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin the Nobel Prize winner". In later years he got to know her very well and told her how she had influenced him as a child.  

John recalled that he studied chemistry in the sixth form by accident. He'd wanted to study  physics, mathematics and geography at 'A' level but the Headmaster decreed that the timetable would not allow that so he was told to take chemistry. He was the only pupil in that class, so in one-to-one tuition, during the first hour would talk about rugby and the second would do his chemistry. 

He recalled that he "read an extremely important book by Eric James, later Lord Rushholme, then chemistry master at Winchester, 'Problems in Physical Chemistry'. What struck me about it was it was so elegantly written. It was like reading a novel. There was mathematics in it too. It was exhilarating. He did influence me in an ineffable kind of way."

Having gained his place to study chemistry as an undergraduate at Swansea University in 1950, John came under the influence and was inspired by the Principle, John Fulton. He recalled : "He was the leader and when he spoke he was inspiring. He didn't talk about fund raising and things like that. He talked about : 'What is democracy ?' 

We had to read essays to him - all the all the first year students. There were 250 of them. They each had to do 4 essays in all, on various subjects. He gave you a list, you could choose and every two weeks or so, in the first year, you had to read an essay - Rush Rhees the philosopher, who was a big friend of Wittgenstein. Others you might read to -  the Assistant Director in French or the Reader in Physics. 'The idea of Nationalism', for example, you'd speak to the Professor of History on that. But John Fulton took as in, four at a time. We would each read our essays and we'd have an hours conversation. The top man found time to do that. That's impressive". 

John admitted that John Fulton "made a lasting impression". In addition, "the other thing he did, which set him apart : every tuesday afternoon, every student went into a lecture theatre -world class speakers : Isaiah Berlin talking about 'The Brother Karamazov'. Gerald Moore : 'The Art of Accompaniment'. Absolutely mesmerising.  Garnet Rees on 'Marcel Proust and the Psychological Novel'. Kinglsley Amis, a member of staff there : 'The novel : why was it that Jane Austen, George Eliot and the others all came more or less together ? How do you account for this ? and how important is the novel ? and how long ago did novels start ?  A wonderfully educating thing. Scientists too : Somebody talking about 'Relativity' or 'The Revolution in Modern Physics'. So that was, I really reckon, that in a small welsh provincial college I received first class education". 

When he was in his 50s and lived in the same quarters that Faraday once occupied in the Royal Institution’s building on Albemarle Street, London, he sat in Faraday’s chair and worked at his desk. 

“When I retired at night, the bathroom furniture had a brass plate bearing his signature; and each time I gazed at it, I felt, knowing how prodigiously hard he used to work, that I had not done enough to earn a night’s sleep.”

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful tribute to a fascinating and rich life. Thank you.