Professor Jerzy Haber: Scientist celebrated for his work on catalysis and on the oxidation of hydrocarbons

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Few scientists could rival the cultural depth, linguistic abilities and innovative scientific skills of Jerzy Haber, known as "George" to his numerous English, American and Russian friends and to countless other scientists in almost every country where the subject of catalysis – the speeding-up of chemical reactions – is investigated.

Born the only son of a prosperous banker in 1930 in his beloved Krakow he graduated at the Jagiellonian University – Copernicus and Pope John Paul II also graduated there – he published a significant paper with his Ph.D Supervisor (A. Bielanski) in Nature in 1957 that provided early experimental support for the so-called electron theory of catalysis, then very much in vogue among theoreticians. From 1960 to 1961 he worked alongside F. S. Stone at the University of Bristol; and together they published a much-quoted paper on the application of crystal-field theory in the interpretation of photocatalysis, a topic that is now at the heart of the quest to harness solar radiation.

Upon his return to Poland, he became an associate Professor at the University of Technology in Krakow; but soon thereafter he was appointed Director of an independent laboratory of catalysis and surface chemistry at the Polish Academy of Sciences, located in a Krakovian suburb. This Institute, now universally acknowledged as a centre of excellence in catalysis, was officially inaugurated in 1968, when he became its enlightened and far-sighted Director, a post he held up until the time of his retirement in 2002.

Not only did his Institute pursue fundamental studies, but he also fostered interaction with industry and, early on, undertook work directly related to environmental protection and the conservation of historic monuments, paintings and other works of art (of which he was an authoritative connoisseur). At the time of his death his Institute was, and remains, at the forefront of fundamental research targeted towards sustainability, a topic to which catalysis can potentially play an enormously important role, as yet incompletely appreciated (especially in the UK).

Among his many scientific achievements it is his wide-ranging work on the selective oxidation of hydrocarbons (as sources of chemicals, fuels and fabrics), utilising a range of transition-metal oxide catalysts that will, arguably, be deemed his most noteworthy contribution. George Haber, with his post-doctoral assistant Malgorzata Witco, now Director of the Institute, was among the first in the world to initiate research on the elementary steps of the catalytic oxidation of hydrocarbons using quantum chemical methods.

He published some 530 original papers and six books and was assigned over 50 patents. He was the recipient of numerous national and international awards, including the Pierre et Marie Curie Prize of the French Chemical Society and the Mittasch prize of the German Society of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. In his own country, he was awarded a doctorate, honoris causa, from the Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, the Research Prize of the Prime Minister and the Commander Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta. He was also awarded another doctorate, honoris causa, by the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris, and he received the Order of the Academic Palms of the French Republic, as well as Honorary Foreign Fellowship of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Apart from being a full member of the Polish Academy of Sciences (since 1983) he was also a full member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991), a member of the Research Council to the President of the Republic (1991-95) and a member of the National Council of Environmental Protection (1991-2002).

Because of his exceptional scientific insights and remarkable persuasive gifts, coupled to astute financial dealings, he was able to equip his institute with leading-edge technology and techniques. In 1973, for example, he installed the first X-ray induced photoelectron (XPS) spectrometer to be found anywhere behind the Iron Curtain. This instrument, made by Vacuum Generators of Sussex and based on a design by Professor Wyn Roberts (then of the University of Bradford, now of Cardiff University), uncovered much new knowledge about the surfaces of active oxidation catalysts.

George Haber was a brilliant communicator and lecturer, as my students and postdoctoral workers in Cambridge and the Royal Institution (RI), London, found to their great advantage. In view of his sensitivities to political change he could sense well ahead of others the onset of major events. Walking down Albemarle Street in London one day in 1988 after lecturing to my research group at the RI, he outlined to me the kind of changes that Gorbachev had set in train leading up to what was later to be known as glasnost.

In 1955 he married Hanna Wojterkowska who, like him, had a collector's passion for prints, maps, works of art and other objects of beauty. A visit to their home overlooking Krakow was a veritable journey into a unique museum-cum-gallery. His passing leaves the world a poorer place.

Jerzy Haber, scientist: born Krakow, Poland 7 May 1930; graduate from the Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, Jagiellonian University 1951; British Council visiting scientist, University of Bristol and Imperial College, London 1961-63; Research Assistant, later Associate Professor, University of Technology, Krakow 1963-68; Founding Director of Polish Academy of Sciences Institute of Catalysis and Surface Chemistry 1968-2002; President of the International Council of Catalysis 1988-92; Vice-President of the Commission on Colloid and Surface Chemistry, International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry 1978-90; married 1955 Hanna Wojterkowska; died Krakow 1 January 2010.