Obituary : Professor Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson

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The Independent Online
The Nobel Laureate Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson's scientific work spanned 55 years and covered many aspects, but he will be remembered chiefly for his outstanding contributions to organometallic chemistry - the study of compounds which contain direct metal-carbon bonds. Many of these compounds are of industrial use as catalysts - substances which make chemical reactions occur faster without themselves being consumed - and the subject of catalysis was one in particular to which Wilkinson made remarkable and innovative contributions.

At Imperial College London, where he was Professor of Inorganic Chemistry from 1956 to 1978 (and then Sir Edward Frankland Professor, 1978-88), the spirit in his research group was more like that of an urgent gold- rush in the West than the scholarly and disciplined calm expected in academia. Many mistakes were made, explosions occurred, and fires consumed.

Indeed, the present President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Professor Eddie Abel, blew off the door of Wilkinson's office, and of every window in the block. Wilkinson was lecturing at the time, rushed back and set about a desperate search for the dispersed manuscript of the near- complete draft of the first edition of his famous book (with F. A. Cotton) Advanced Inorganic Chemistry: a comprehensive text (1962).

He was educated at Todmorden Secondary School; Sir John Cockroft, a Nobel Laureate in Physics (1951), had earlier been a pupil there, making it almost certainly the only school in the world to have educated two Nobel prizewinners. In 1939, he was awarded a Royal Scholarship to Imperial College, where he read Chemistry and was awarded the top first class honours BSc in 1941. His subsequent PhD studies at the college were supervised by Professor H.V.A. Briscoe, but in January 1943 he was recruited, together with other outstanding young scientists, by the Government to work on the atomic bomb project at Montreal and then at Chalk River, Canada, until 1946.

He then went to work with Professor Glenn Seaborg on nuclear taxonomy at Berkeley, where he discovered more isotopes than anyone before or since. In 1950, he joined the staff at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then, in September 1951, became Assistant Professor at Harvard.

It was at MIT and Harvard that Wilkinson's interest in organometallic chemistry developed, but the crucial moment of his career came at Harvard. Together with the organic chemist and later Nobel Laureate R.B. Woodward, he recognised the unprecedented molecular structure of the organometallic compound now known as ferrocene.

In this molecule there is an iron atom centrally placed between the planes of two five-membered rings formed by five carbon-hydrogen groups. This picturesque structure led to its description as a "sandwich molecule". Wilkinson, being an inorganic chemist, immediately set about investigating the fundamental ideas suggested by this molecule and took advantage of his extensive knowledge of transition metal chemistry.

This, combined with an outstanding experimental intuition, resulted in a 40-year period of extraordinary productivity whereby he revealed the enormous extent of this new area known as organo-transition metal chemistry. In Germany, Professor E.O. Fischer also appreciated the significance of the ferrocene structure and prepared the analogous molecule in which chromium was sandwiched between two benzene rings. Wilkinson and Fischer pioneered the development of this new field with such success that they were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973.

In the early 1950s inorganic chemistry was undergoing a renaissance, not least because of the post-war availability of new spectroscopic methods such as infra-red and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and single crystal x-ray diffraction. These tools enabled Wilkinson to understand the molecular structure of the new compounds with much greater certainty than would have been otherwise possible. Indeed, in the early days the products of the chemical reactions carried out in his research group very often gave quite unexpected outcomes, thereby demonstrating the subtlety and complexity of organo-transition metal chemistry.

In June 1955, Wilkinson was appointed Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Imperial College. At that time, this was the only established Chair in inorganic chemistry in Britain; later it was renamed the Sir Edward Frankland Chair of Inorganic Chemistry (in commemoration of Frankland, the "father of organometallic chemistry" who was at the college from 1865). Wilkinson took up his position in January 1956 after a short sabbatical stay in Copenhagen, and at 34 he was one of the youngest professors ever appointed at the college.

He brought with him the more direct and informal style of personal management found in North America. He dressed casually and called his students by their first names and expected to be called Geoff. In the early days at Imperial College, he worked feverishly in the race to explore the newly discovered continent of chemistry. He was always sceptical - with some justification - of the value of chemical theory in having a predictive role in his work. He based his ideas on his vast empirical knowledge of the properties and known reactions of the chemical elements; this, combined with a vivid imagination and intuition, led him to see analogies and connections not previously made.

His work in Britain was always curiosity-driven: none the less in addition to his fundamental studies his discoveries led to major advances in applied chemistry. He prepared the rhodium compound known as Wilkinson's catalyst and this engendered crucial contributions to the development of methods for the synthesis of pharmaceutical chemicals. He also discovered the rhodium catalysts now used in the industrial process known as hydroformylation whereby olefins are converted to aldehydes and alcohols. Patents arising from this work enabled Wilkinson to support his research group after his retirement.

After his retirement as Sir Edward Frankland Professor in 1988, he was appointed Professor Emeritus; he was provided with a new laboratory funded by Johnson Matthey in which he continued to run a small but lively and creative research group until his death. He was the author (with Professor F.A. Cotton, one of his earliest graduate students and now a leading academic chemist in the United States) of a pioneering textbook Advanced Inorganic Chemistry, first published in 1962, which has been a standard work ever since. He had handed in the final chapter of his contribution to the sixth edition of this work the week before he died.

Geoffrey Wilkinson had a complex personality; to some he could seem a rather forbidding figure, but those who knew and loved him recognised a friend with a profound knowledge of his subject and of other fields. He had a single-minded focus on the quality of originality which he had in abundance, and it was hard for most of his colleagues to satisfy his demanding standards. He expected his graduate students to share his limitless enthusiasm and energy for new chemistry and in consequence inspired many of them. He wore his fame lightly and was accessible to all. He was a fierce protector of British science and research and he insisted on publishing almost all his research papers (over 550 of them) in British scientific journals.

Wilkinson became the scourge of those responsible for higher education in his battles for the cause of fundamental research in the country. A succession of prime ministers received numerous letters from him on this and other subjects, as did Research Councils, Vice-Chancellors, officers of the Royal Society and others.

He had a great sense of fun, was an excellent raconteur, and had a catholic range of interests. He was intensely proud of being a Yorkshireman and a favourite holiday was walking on the moors and fells around Pen-y-Ghent; he and his wife were active langlauf and downhill skiers. He planted some 2,000 trees on his country estate in Sussex.

Some two months before his death, a dinner was held at Imperial College to celebrate his 40 years at the college; over a hundred people attended from all over the world. Many of those present were distinguished professors who had been taught by Geoffrey Wilkinson: it was a happy and memorable occasion for all.

In 1951, he married Lise Solver, daughter of Professor Sven Aage Schou, the Rector of Denmark's Pharmaceutical High School. He was a caring and supportive family man and a proud grandfather. He is survived by his wife and their two daughters, Anne and Pernille.

Malcolm Green

and Bill Griffith

Geoffrey Wilkinson, chemist: born Springside, Yorkshire 14 July 1921; Research Fellow, University of California at Berkeley 1946-50; Instructor, MIT 1950-51; Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Harvard University 1951- 56; Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, Imperial College London 1956-78, Sir Edward Frankland Professor 1978-88 (Emeritus); FRS 1965; Nobel Prize for Chemistry (jointly with E.O. Fischer) 1973; Kt 1976; author of Advanced Inorganic Chemistry (with F.A. Cotton) 1962, Basic Inorganic Chemistry (with F.A. Cotton) 1976; married 1951 Lise Solver (two daughters); died London 26 September 1996.