Obituary: Professor Ralph Raphael

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The Independent Online
WHEN Ralph Raphael was a Lecturer at Glasgow University his colleagues recall his phenomenal powers of concentration; he would read demanding papers in a noisy room, totally unaware of those around him. One wet day, he was found walking along a long departmental corridors still holding his umbrella over his head. His colleagues knew then he soon would be Professor Raphael.

His Glasgow lectureship in Organic Chemistry, from 1949 to 1954, proved to be one of the most productive periods of his life, and included such notable achievements as the synthesis of carbohydrates and histamine from acetylenic precursors. But he also had a great sense of fun, and occasionally delivered spoof lectures. One began with serious chemistry and gradually became less credible; it culminated in the description of molecules with their absorption spectra in the audible region.

Yet Raphael's excellence triumphed over his lack of reverence, and he was elected as the first Professor of Organic Chemistry at Queen's University, Belfast, in 1954. His stay in Belfast was to prove relatively short, and in 1957 he returned to Glasgow, this time as Regius Professor of Chemistry, and remained there for 15 years. The story is told that his promotion had been so rapid that he was observed to knock at his new office door and wait for his predecessor to ask him in.

However, Raphael fitted the image of dreamy professor only when it suited him. More commonly, he was master of the economical and appropriate phrase. In Glasgow, a manufacturer of expensive instruments had been leading the department a dance over a period of months in relation to the malfunction of a relatively new machine. Patience having passed breaking point, Raphael's letter to the managing director opened: "Like the Borgias, Name- less Ltd have experienced everything and learnt nothing."

Ralph Raphael was born on New Year's Day in 1921, and attended school at Wesley College, Dublin, and Tottenham, London. By 1941, he had graduated in Chemistry from Imperial College with first class honours, and run off with the Hofmann Prize.

The winter of 1940-41 was a tough time to be living in London - air-raids were frequent, and thousands were killed. In the midst of the carnage, Raphael had to prepare for his finals. He was one of five who obtained a First. (He was narrowly beaten to the top position by Geoffrey Wilkinson, who was later to receive the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.) There then followed postgraduate research, also at Imperial, and he was awarded his PhD in 1943.

His first paper reported work towards the synthesis of acetylenic alcohols related to vitamin A, and seeded a lifelong interest in acetylene chemistry. From 1943 to 1946, he worked at May and Baker, heading the chemotherapeutic research unit, and working on the chemistry and synthesis of penicillin.

An ICI Fellowship (1946-49) induced him to return to Imperial. This was a period of great happiness and chemical activity, the latter recognised by his receipt of the Meldola Medal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1948. Basil Weedon (later Vice-Chancellor at Nottingham University) recounted that, following Raphael's marriage to Prudence Gaffikin, he could often be found in the departmental library, surrounded by journals, at the same time minding their baby in a pram. He added that "this does not sound very significant now, but it made quite an impact on the male- dominated community of that time".

During Raphael's second period in Glasgow, the science blossomed as before. In 1961, he published a new synthesis of queen bee substance, a compound secreted by the queen to inhibit both ovary development in the worker bees and further queen rearing within the colony. In recognition of this and much other outstanding synthetic work, he was the Tilden Lecturer of the Chemical Society in 1960, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1962. His wider services to the chemical community in this period were expressed through membership of the Chemistry Committee of the Science Research Council, and in his role as Vice-President (1963- 66) and Council Member of the Chemical Society.

It was perhaps inevitable that his talents would lead other institutions to entice him away. In 1973, he moved to Cambridge as Professor of Organic Chemistry and Head of the Department of Organic and Inorganic Chemistry. Here he carried out more elegant synthetic work. His undergraduate lectures were not only clear, but laced with humour and examples of the relevance of synthesis to society. The humour which he demonstrated in the lecture theatre carried over into his daily life, and particularly to the dinner table - either when he was an after-dinner speaker, or at home following his wife's superb cuisine. He was an excellent raconteur, and used a measured delivery in his deeply resonant voice to good effect. In a busy life, bridge and appreciation of music were some of his pastimes.

A considerable portion of Raphael's time was inevitably spent on administration. Not only did he cope with this almost single-handedly, but he sat on sufficient professional appointment committees to become affectionately known as "The Godfather".

Following his arrival in Cambridge, his talents were tapped as a member of the Council of the Royal Society and President of the Organic Chemistry Division of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Additionally, he was a Pedler Lecturer of the Chemical Society in 1973, received their Ciba-Geigy Award for Synthetic Chemistry in 1975, and was Davy Medallist of the Royal Society in 1981.

A new experience was to be a Fellow of a Cambridge College. At Christ's College he found himself, although a professor in the university, the college's most junior Fellow. As such, he was "Mr Nib", with the duty of pouring after-dinner drinks for other Fellows and their guests. The entry in Christ's Wine-Book for 26 June 1972 reads: "Professor Raphael presented a bottle of Sauternes to celebrate the first occasion he had occupied Mr Nib's chair, and to express his appreciation of the friendly forbearance of the Room."

Ralph Alexander Raphael, chemist: born Croydon, Surrey 1 January 1921; Lecturer in Organic Chemistry, Glasgow University 1949-54; Professor of Organic Chemistry, Queen's University, Belfast 1954-57; Regius Professor of Chemistry, Glasgow University 1957-72; FRS 1962; Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge 1972-88; Professor of Organic Chemistry and Head of Department of Organic and Inorganic Chemistry, Cambridge University 1972- 88 (Professor Emeritus); CBE 1982; married 1944 Prudence Gaffikin (one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 27 April 1998.