Obituary: Professor Charles Kemball

CHARLES KEMBALL was not just a brilliant academic chemist, but made outstanding contributions to the universities he worked in and to the scientific community in general.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
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.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water