Obituary : Professor Jeremy Burdett

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The Independent Online
Jeremy Burdett had the ability to make complicated chemical ideas seem simple. He could go straight to the heart of a scientific problem, ignore confusing detail, and present his solution in a form accessible to everyone.

From 1978 until his untimely death at the age of 49, he was Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago. There his interests turned, in addition to the structure of individual molecules, to the structure of solids. His great contribution was to show how rather simple theoretical ideas derived from organic and inorganic chemistry could be applied to the apparently more complicated world of solids.

His approach was to bypass the immense number-crunching calculations then in vogue, yet he managed to provide deep insights into the structure of high-temperature super conductors and the design of materials with specific properties.

Burdett was born in London in 1947, and studied Natural Sciences, specialising in chemistry, at Magdalene College, Cambridge, from where he graduated in 1968. He immediately seized the opportunity to begin research in the United States, as Power Foundation Fellow at the University of Michigan, working with Professor Jerry Current. This experience left him with a deep respect for American chemistry, which had lasting consequences for his scientific career. He obtained an MSc at Michigan in 1970 and returned to Cambridge to work with Jim Turner.

Already he was full of ideas and was very stubborn about them, even when he was wrong. He was working on Matrix Isolation, a spectroscopic technique which allows very unstable molecular fragments to be studied by trapping them at temperatures close to Absolute Zero (-273C). Matrix Isolation led to the trapping of molecular fragments containing chromium or iron, with structures which were not predicted by conventional theory. Burdett became intrigued, and began to wonder why.

Following his Cambridge PhD in 1972, he was appointed Senior Research Officer at Newcastle University, where he moved with Jim Turner plus several other members of the Cambridge research group. Newcastle gave Burdett the opportunity to develop his ideas. In a series of elegant papers, he was able to rationalise the unusual molecular structures revealed by the Matrix Isolation experiments. In 1977, he and Martyn Poliakoff were jointly awarded Meldola medals of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Poliakoff for the experiments and Burdett for explaining them.

The year 1977 was a watershed. Burdett spent a sabbatical at Cornell with Roald Hoffmann, who later won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Hoffmann's influence was crucial in determining the direction of Burdett's subsequent research. In 1978 he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, where he was to spend the rest of his career.

Burdett's research activities were recognised by several awards, in Britain most notably by a Cambridge ScD (1991) and the Tilden Medal and Prize of the Royal Society of Chemistry (1995). In addition, he was a Sloan Fellow, a Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher Scholar, a Fellow of the John Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, a Wilsmore Fellow of the the University of Melbourne (1985) and CNRS Visiting Professor at the Universite de Paris- Sud, Orsay (1987) and at Rennes (1994). In Paris, he began a long and highly productive collaboration with Odile Eisenstein; their latest ideas are still to be published.

Along with more than 200 significant research papers, Burdett published several books in which he explained theoretical chemistry in non-specialised language. These include: Molecular Shapes (with Tom Albright and Mike Whangbo, 1980); Orbital Interactions in Chemistry (with Tom Albright, 1985); Problems in Molecular Orbital Theory (1992); and Chemical Bonding in Solids (1995). His latest book, Chemical Bonds: a dialogue (1997) addresses a series of fundamental questions, which have puzzled chemists for a long time. As usual, his answers are refreshing, convincing and readily understandable.

His contributions to the University of Chicago were considerable. From 1987 to 1991, he was Master of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division and Associate Dean of the Physical Sciences Division of the college. From 1992 till his death, he was Chairman of the Chemistry Department. His commitment to teaching was recognised by the University of Chicago's Amoco Foundation Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Teaching in 1993.

Despite his long stay in the US, Jeremy Burdett remained recognisably an Englishman but he became sufficiently Americanised to be refreshingly critical on his many visits to the UK. He was a great colleague, bursting with enthusiasm. He taught with commitment, and influenced us all with his penetrating insight. It was fun to be in the laboratory with him.

Jeremy Keith Burdett, chemist: born London 1 July 1947; Senior Research Officer, Newcastle University 1972-78; Professor of Chemistry, University of Chicago 1978-97, Chairman of Department 1992-97; three times married (two sons); died Michigan 23 June 1997.