A. F. Orchard

Gifted research chemist and teacher
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The Independent Online

A. F. Orchard was not only a dedicated teacher and college fellow at Oxford, but a significant scholar, whose early work helped lay the foundations of much of the modern understanding of the nature of bonding in inorganic chemistry.

Anthony Frederick Orchard was born in Carmarthen in 1941 and moved to Swansea at an early age. As a young man he showed not only great intellectual ability but real promise as a tennis and snooker player, the latter being played to near professional level. He came up on an open scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, to read Chemistry, in which he excelled academically, his outstanding finals papers being remembered for many years. After a brief period at Merton College as a Junior Research Fellow, he was offered a fellowship at University College in 1967 at the early age of 26. Here he began a long career as a very gifted teacher, able through his background to take a synoptic view of the subject and transmit it to generations of students.

His interests in theoretical chemistry had initially been quickened by the ferment in inorganic chemistry in the early Sixties: the first quantitative theories of structure and bonding in transition-metal chemistry had been developed a little earlier, in part by the Cambridge school, and hopes were high that further progress would be rapid. Tony Orchard's interests were also stimulated by attendance at the Quantum Chemistry Summer School run by Per-Olov Löwdin in Uppsala, and working in conjunction with the great European theorists of the day, such as C.K. Jørgensen and C.J. Ballhausen, he began to extend their ideas on bonding to a wider range of compounds than those then regarded as tractable.

Intellectually, the challenge was immense: whilst the equations governing bonding in inorganic compounds could be written down, they could not be solved save by making simplifications that were often difficult to justify. The way in had to be through intuition and ingenuity, and Orchard realised that he must work closely with experimentalists, checking his methods at every turn. He found, in the techniques developed initially by David Turner and Bill Price in London, the perfect experimental vehicle to test his new ideas. Working with a small group of committed research students he helped create, in a series of papers in the Sixties and Seventies, our modern understanding of electronic structure and bonding in a wide variety of systems.

At the same time, he became increasingly involved in college life, steadily withdrawing from active research, but becoming a successful Dean of his college, a post requiring patience and tact. He worked tirelessly for the university, helping to ensure that it continued to attract chemistry students of the highest calibre and trying to ensure that students unfamiliar with Oxford could navigate the admissions process with confidence. But he continued his scholarly work, with a text on photoelectron spectroscopy for the Open University, and the volume Magnetochemistry (2003) for Oxford University Press, both models of clarity and skilful presentation.

To his students, Tony Orchard was a fund of good, solid common sense; indeed, to many of us later in life, he continued to offer insights and advice. Perhaps the most remarkable testament to Orchard's popularity was the attendance at the first dinner held by University College for its graduates in chemistry earlier this year. More than 100 graduates attended, many travelling great distances, drawn by the chance to meet Tony Orchard again and to exchange news and gossip. All of us at that dinner have lost a great friend and mentor.

Andrew Hamnett