Obituary: Professor Allan Maccoll

ALLAN MACCOLL was a distinguished academic well-known for his applications of physics to chemical problems. He was an Australian who spent over 50 years of his working life in London.

His chief scientific legacy comes from the Fifties and Sixties, when he established the surprising fact that in chemical reactions in gases in which one component of a molecule is eliminated there can be an intermediate stage in which the separation of electrical charges is important. He enlarged our understanding of chemical processes in gases into a comprehensive scheme that is largely unchallenged after 40 years. His work adds to the fundamental basis of knowledge from which technological advances arise.

Maccoll was born in Edinburgh in 1914. His family migrated to Australia when he was eight. They lived in the Sydney seaside suburb of Manly with its famous beaches and outdoor opportunities. He became a weekend surf lifesaver and represented Sydney University in water polo. Throughout his life he remained unmistakably Australian; he was gregarious, robust, genial and a bon viveur. He graduated from Sydney with first class degrees in Mathematics and Chemistry, and was appointed lecturer there as a very young man.

After the Second World War he was one of the first winners of the ICI and Turner and Newall Research Fellowships awarded to overseas students for postgraduate research. At this time there were no PhD programmes in Australia, and graduate students almost without exception were attracted to Britain. He arrived in 1945 with his wife Margaret, an economist, and joined Sir Christopher Ingold, one of the greatest chemists of the century, in his laboratories in University College London.

Allan Maccoll liked to tell of his reception in London. The illustrious and fully occupied Professor Ingold took immediate personal charge of the new boy, showing him the worst and the best of what there was left of the college after the 1941 bombings - the space where Physics had been, the near-destroyed library, the dreary and ill-maintained Department of Chemistry, and finally, with pride, the genius loci, the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham, seen as the founding father of the university. The tour concluded with a glass of exceedingly weak post-war ale.

Maccoll's quality was quickly recognised; soon after completing his PhD he was appointed to the teaching staff and became the leader of the group of young chemists whom Ingold selected to restore the departmental research effort after a disruptive move to Aberystwyth and Bangor during the war. He rose through the academic grades, becoming professor in 1963. He spent his entire career in London at UCL. He was active in college and university affairs, serving on the Senate and Academic Council of the university in the years 1965-74.

He had taken to University College a research project stemming from his first work in Sydney with Thomas Iredale. It was to study the speed of a class of chemical reactions taking place in gases. Visitors to the laboratory he now set up saw a formidable apparatus spread across an entire laboratory wall. An enthusiastic Maccoll explained that it was centred on a reaction vessel containing the target gas. This vessel was joined to a complex array of glass tubing that allowed gases to be fed in and drawn out and the pressure measured. The construction was itself a technical feat of glass-blowing that few could have managed. Conclusions were built on large numbers of precise measurements of reaction rates made over months.

Following indications that were at first tenuous, then more and more inescapable, Maccoll showed that, against all received wisdom, some well- known reactions involved pulling apart electrical charges, and he developed a unified theory that brought together reactions in the gas and in solution in a single explanatory framework. It has proved a durable accomplishment.

Maccoll was one of the first in Britain to exploit the mass spectrometer in organic chemistry. In the mass spectrometer molecules are hit by fast electrons. Typically they become positively charged and break into fragments. The fragments are spread into a spectrum according to their masses and electric charges and can be identified.

His central purpose was to find the steps the original molecule took in its passage to the final fragments. He worked with instrument manufacturers in solving the technical problems of getting low- energy electron beams of precisely defined energy, doing less damage to the molecules and making easier the detective work of relating fragments to original targets. He thus illuminated fragmentation processes in broad classes of molecules. The achievement was recognised by the award in 1989 of the first Aston medal of the British Mass Spectrometry Society.

Maccoll's influence on mass spectrometry was great. He was the founding editor of the journal Organic Mass Spectrometry, which was of high importance in turning mass spectrometry from a poorly understood analytical art into a soundly based discipline. In the Sixties and Seventies he rarely missed a conference; his mastery of the subject and his gently phrased but incisive comments were looked for and respected.

He had many research students from developing countries and was sensitive and sympathetic to their problems of science education. He took the opportunity given by London University's scheme of Special Relationship to lecture in Ibadan, Ghana, Makerere, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Rhodesia, and for the British Council in countries of Eastern Europe, Chile and Venezuela.

Allan Maccoll made his contribution to chemistry through the originality of his research, but those who were lucky enough to have been his colleagues and his friends will remember him for his generous spirit, bonhomie and loyalty, and for his pride in and devotion to the institution he served.

David Craig

Allan Maccoll, physical chemist: born Edinburgh 25 July 1914; Lecturer in Chemistry, University College London 1947-53, Reader 1953-63, Professor of Chemistry 1963-81 (Emeritus); Editor-in-Chief, Organic Mass Spectrometry 1969-81; married 1940 Margaret Riley (two daughters); died Claygate, Surrey 16 February 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own