Obituary: Neil Campbell

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The Independent Online
For an incredible three-quarters of a century, 1922 to 1996 - as undergraduate, graduate student, lecturer, reader, professor, and one of the stalwarts of the meetings and dinners of the Royal Society of Edinburgh to which he was elected in 1950 - Neil Campbell was immersed in the Chemistry Department of Edinburgh University.

He was away only for the academic years 1930-31 when he was despatched by Sir James Walker, his PhD supervisor, to study at the University of Tubingen under Professor Johannes Meisenheimer, one of the leading organic chemists of the day, and 1933-34 at Duke University in the United States.

His time at Tubingen, professionally fruitful, made a powerful impression. In 1976, I dropped a casual comment that the then Labour government's inflation difficulties were, I opined, manageable. Campbell's reaction was uncharacteristically sharp: "You weren't in Germany in 1930. I was. You did not see the barrow-loads of paper money being wheeled around. I did. Be careful!" Campbell was appalled, but hardly surprised by the events as they unfolded in Germany with the rise of Hitler, and was among a group of Edinburgh scientists who were instrumental, pre-war and post- war, in welcoming German and Jewish colleagues to Edinburgh including the Nobel prizewinner Max Born and students of a younger generation such as Charlotte Auerbach.

Neil Campbell came from a family in the solid society of Edinburgh actuaries. At the Merchant Company School of George Watson's College, he received a rigorous Scots education for which he expressed his gratitude by maintaining the closest links academic and sporting with the school. He was elected President of the Watsonian Club in 1962.

At Edinburgh University he won not only first class honours in Chemistry, but an athletics Blue. As a quarter-miler - the 400m was unheard of in those days - he often ran against the legendary Eric Liddell, later to win a gold medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics, and when questioned would ruefully confess "to having often admired Liddell's style - from behind".

His academic and sporting success notwithstanding, Campbell was neither priggish nor a paragon of youthful rectitude. There is a long-remembered tale, somewhat embellished over the years, but essentially true, of how, in 1924, Campbell achieved passing fame when during an unexpected delay in the opening ceremony for the King's Buildings (to this day the huge University Science Faculty complex), he successfully impersonated the young Prince of Wales, to the delight of his contemporaries but to the chagrin of the Vice-Chancellor.

Campbell's research in the field of polycyclic aromatic and heteroaromatic molecules, electrophilic aromatic substitution, and liquid crystals, gained him a lectureship. He wrote a much-used textbook, Qualitative Organic Chemistry (1939) and edited Schmidt's Textbook of Organic Chemistry (eighth edition, 1947). On account of his mastery of German, he also translated many learned articles from the German universities. He contributed to Rodd's Chemistry of Carbon Compounds (1951). However, he was valuable more as a superb and caring teacher than as an original chemist.

Professor Robert Donovan, the present head of the department, recalls: "Those who came with a weak background in chemistry were given his special assistance and he was always available for discussion and advice. His lectures were spiced with humour and he was able to arouse enthusiasm, confidence and respect."

It was his all-round contribution that mattered. In these days of student drop-outs and pressure on university staff to produce articles and books at the expense of teaching, one can look back longingly at people like Campbell for the pastoral care he and his athlete wife of 55 years, Marjorie Stewart, a Scottish hockey international who predeceased him by a few days, gave to so many students.

Campbell had another life. Not only had he been an athlete, but he was one of the best rugby referees of his generation. Ken Scotland, the international full back for Scotland and the British Lions of yesteryear, remembered Campbell as an international schoolboy referee. I myself first came into contact with Campbell when we were both members of the organising committee of the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Had it not been for Campbell and the late Sir John Inch taking the committee by the scruff of its collective neck, we would have found ourselves in a fiasco mess of Atlanta proportions. Later, he was to be the Vice-Commandant of the Games Village. This experience was hardly new since Campbell had been an official timekeeper for the 1958 Empire Games.

Nearing retirement, Campbell devoted a great deal of his time to being a member of the University Court of the Heriot-Watt (1968-76) during the period the second university in Edinburgh was being established; his memorials, perhaps, are its sports field and superb sports centre in the new Riccarton campus. He was appointed OBE in 1961 for his service to the Scottish Association of Boys Clubs.

Many of his friends will remember him in recent years for his ever pertinent contributions to the discussions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Neil Campbell, chemist and athletics administrator: born Edinburgh 29 August 1903; staff, Chemistry Department, Edinburgh University 1931-73, Professor 1967-73; OBE 1961; married 1940 Marjorie Stewart (died 1996; two sons); died Kinghorn, Fife 24 July 1996.