Obituary: Professor Charles Kemball
Wednesday 30 September 1998
Born in Edinburgh in 1923, the only child of a dental surgeon, Kemball was educated at Edinburgh Academy. There he was rescued by a perceptive form-master from the Classics, towards which bright boys tended to be directed but for which he felt little aptitude. Only two years later he won an Exhibition on the science side into Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained a first class Honours degree in Chemistry in 1943.
His postgraduate work in the Colloid Science department was on the adsorption of organic compounds on mercury surfaces; this led to the award of a research fellowship at Trinity in 1946. During a year at Princeton in 1946-47 in association with Professor H.S. Taylor FRS, this interest in surface chemistry was directed into the field of heterogeneous catalysis which ultimately became his chemical home.
After Kemball's return to Trinity, he was tempted into the post of Junior Bursar in 1949. Here, as later, he combined productive science with substantial administrative contributions, as well as participating in the good things of college life. Indeed, after a rope declined to take his weight when he was demonstrating a fire escape device to a colleague, a notice appeared in college which said, "Visitors are requested not to feed the Junior Bursar".
After a move to the Physical Chemistry department in 1949, Kemball studied exchange reactions of hydrocarbons by mass spectrometry (separating molecules by molecular weight). He found that the major product from the exchange of propane with deuterium over rhodium flints was the perdeutero-compound - a surprising discovery which was the starting-point for much fruitful work in the catalytic field. In 1951 he was appointed to a Demonstratorship in Physical Chemistry, obtained a College Lectureship a little later and was awarded the prestigious Meldola Medal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry.
His significant work at Cambridge led to his appointment to the Chair of Chemistry at Queen's, Belfast, where he continued his very productive work on catalysis. This brought various medals and prizes, including the Corday- Morgan medal of the Chemical Society, culminating in 1965 with election to the Royal Society. He had a successful spell as Dean of Science from 1957 to 1960 and later took on additional duties as Vice-President to assist the Vice-Chancellor in the organisation of the expansion of the university, a further opportunity for exercising his skill in devising creative administrative solutions, particularly for the fair distribution of resources.
After 12 years at Queen's he returned to Scotland in 1966 to take up the Chair of Chemistry at Edinburgh. Here his research on catalytic reactions and intermediates flourished, making perceptive use of new techniques as they became available and deepening the positive collaboration with industry which had begun in Belfast, particularly with ICI. He introduced two new concepts into the rather traditional departmental organisation: a rotating headship and the use of an academic post to lighten the administrative load which fell on the teaching staff. He also reorganised the teaching, particularly in the first year, initiating a very successful course for students who were not taking Chemistry further.
He was Dean of Science in Edinburgh from 1975 to 1978. This was a difficult time financially for the universities and again he devised ingenious and fair solutions for the distribution of resources - and maintained morale. As Vice-Dean under him, I was initially a little scared of his efficiency, but his warmth and friendliness soon allayed my fears.
Meantime he made major contributions to the running of various scientific societies, including the Royal Institute of Chemistry (he was President from 1974 to 1976), the Chemical Society, and the Royal Society of Chemistry, in whose formation by the unification of the first two he played a major part. He was heavily involved in the publications activities of the societies, finally as chairman of the Publications and Information Board of the Royal Society of Chemistry; here as in other work his business acumen made its mark.
Kemball served on numerous other committees and advisory boards, including the Physical Sciences Sub- committee of the University Grants Committee, and particularly appreciated a seven-year spell as a governor of the East of Scotland College of Agriculture, having spent school holidays on a farm. His move after retirement to the fertile agricultural environment of Tyninghame in East Lothian enabled him and his wife, Kay, to develop and enjoy a flourishing garden.
In 1983, Kemball retired from the Chair of Chemistry (though not from active science), true to the contention in his presidential address to the Royal Institute of Chemistry that those over 60 should not be trusted to run chemistry departments. His many duties after retirement included Presidency of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from 1988 to 1991.
After his return to Scotland he found great pleasure and friendship in hill walking; the annual meetings of his catalytic group at the university's field centre at Firbush did much for the physical as well as intellectual health of the department. He celebrated his 100th Munro with champagne in 1981, a celebration which a reduction in his score due to a revision of the Munro tables enabled him to repeat in 1983.
Charles Kemball, chemist: born Edinburgh 27 March 1923; Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge 1946-54; University Demonstrator in Physical Chemistry, Cambridge University 1951-54, Assistant Lecturer 1951-54; Professor of Physical Chemistry, Queen's University, Belfast 1954-66; FRS 1965; Professor of Chemistry, Edinburgh University 1966-83, Dean of the Faculty of Science 1975-78, Fellow 1983-88, Honorary Fellow 1988-96; CBE 1991; married 1956 Kay Purvis (one son, two daughters); died Tyninghame, East Lothian 4 September 1998.
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