Evelyn Ebsworth: One of the finest inorganic chemists of his generation

Evelyn Ebsworth was one of the leading inorganic chemists of his generation - and an excellent university administrator

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In the opinion of Steve Chapman, Professor of Chemistry in Edinburgh and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, Evelyn Ebsworth was one of the leading inorganic chemists of his generation. He was also an excellent university administrator.

Ebsworth was a Fellow of King’s College and Christ’s College, Cambridge, Faculty member at Princeton, Crum Brown Professor of Chemistry and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Durham. In his tribute, Professor Roy Hudson recalled that during Ebsworth’s tenure, from 1990-98, the number of undergraduates increased from 5,200 to 8,320, and that links between the university and industry were dramatically enhanced.

As the son of Brigadier Wilfred Ebsworth, Evelyn attended many schools, on account of his father’s postings, but finally settled at Marlborough College, where he was inspired by a brilliant head of the chemistry department, AK Goard: “On account of my huge good fortune in being taught by Goard, I made a point of getting to know local chemistry teachers in Cambridge, Edinburgh and later Durham, to tell them how important they were in fostering talent.”

Much to his embarrassment, particularly since he came from a military family, he was rejected for National Service because of his acute asthma, which was to trouble him throughout his life. On my very first night as an undergraduate Ebsworth, carrying his inhaler, knocked on the door in King’s College hostel at 7 Peas Hill, run by the unforgettable Mrs Palmer, saying that he was the College rep of the university Liberal Club, and would I join? Though I declined, we became lifelong friends. An undergraduate of many interests, he entered into the musical life of the college, encouraged by Philip Ratcliffe, Fellow in the Theory of Music, and Boris Ord, Fellow and Choirmaster.

He was also befriended, on account of his love of painting, by the then young Fellow, later Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Michael Jaffé, and his colleague Francis Haskell. Ebsworth was a polymath who could talk knowledgeably on many subjects. But I discovered from the first week of 1962 that his focus was on chemistry. Ebsworth was lucky: his College supervisor was Dr David Stockdale, who combined being tutor in chemistry at Kings with farming in Dumfriesshire.

“Not the greatest chemist in the world” – his own phrase – Ebsworth was an excellent and perceptive encourager of the young. And the young at Kings included his friends, Sidney Brenner and Fred Sanger, who were to win three Nobel Prizes and two Copley Medals between them. In the chemistry department Ebsworth’s potential was immediately spotted by the gentle professor of inorganic chemistry, Harry Emeleus, who was instrumental, after Ebsworth had gained a first class degree, in procuring him a research fellowship at King’s (1957-59), the last year of which was spent at Princeton. “A life-changing experience,” Ebsworth recalled. 

He was at home with US academia, and his second wife, Rose – his beloved Mary Salter died in 1987 – was from Maine, where he was to die of a heart attack. In 1959 Ebsworth became a university demonstrator, and Fellow of Christ’s College, hand-picked by the Master, Alexander Todd, later Lord Todd of Trumpington. Todd and Emeleus recommended the 33-year-old to their friend Michael Swann as Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh, for the prestigious Crum Brown Professorship of Chemistry. Swann phoned me: “How will your chum Ebsworth get on with students and staff? Is he too young?”

I replied, “If  West Lothian can have me, a 33-year-old MP, you can have a 33-year-old. He will get on famously with students – but will have problems with the [newly appointed and formidably serious] Regius Professor, Charles Kemball.” So it proved, though over the years (1967-90) they came to respect one another.

Students and junior lecturers loved him. Steve Chapman recalled, “Evelyn hired me. He was a hugely influential mentor. He was generous with his time, encouraging us all, and his own work on volatile compounds of silicon and germanium, and vacuum lines, as a means of making compounds with liquid nitrogen, was outstanding.”

Dr William Duncan, now chief executive of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, to which Ebsworth was elected in 1969, recalled that not only was Ebsworth an exciting lecturer but also great fun, for himself and his fellow students. He also got on well with the young Professor of Organic Chemistry, John Cadogan, later Director of Research at BP. Cadogan told me: “Evelyn was a wonderful colleague, and mentor for young chemists, taking hours and after-hours of personal interest. My indelible memory is of Evelyn whistling in his tuneless tones, at midnight, trying to get the best out of our new magnetic-resonace spectrometer.”

Professor David Rankin, emeritus professor of structural chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, recalled: “I collaborated closely with Evelyn in methods of looking at structures of molecules. His great strength was using a general method of bringing together different techniques. He interacted extremely productively with people.”

Ebsworth immersed himself in the affairs of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Several members of the Royal Society of London have suggested to me that it was his quirky sense of humour which denied him the FRS on which he had set his heart as an undergraduate.

Many of Ebsworth’s friends were candidly surprised when he was chosen as Vice-Chancellor of the ancient University of Durham. We wondered whether he was cut out for it; alas, our qualms were justified. When my wife and I stayed with him and his charming wife Rose, who was very popular, I sensed that he had made enemies of some heavyweight members of the university senate.

Part of the trouble was that they were irritated by Ebsworth’s lifelong habit of coming out with excruciatingly awful puns, which Durham academia thought unbefitting in their vice chancellor. Another was a habit of rather dreadful, somewhat unfunny mimicry, the content of which got back to the victims. I don’t think it occurred to Ebsworth that it could be a dangerous and expensive pastime.

As an undergraduate he had indulged in second-rate take-offs of dons such as the Provost, Sir John Sheppard, and particularly the Assistant Tutor, the young Noël Annan (later Lord Annan). And his sardonic behaviour at meetings of senior members of the university was unappreciated. He was denied the knighthood that had been bestowed on Sir Dermot Christopherson, and a succession of Durham vice chancellors, and only after five years was he granted the honour of emeritus professor. I write this in the knowledge that Ebsworth, a deeply and intellectually honest man, would not have challenged those observations.

A further source of trouble was that he threw wonderful parties on the occasion of any visit by the chancellor of Durham, Peter Ustinov – “only for those such as were invited!” I was somewhat sourly told by a heavyweight Durham professor. Yet his successor as vice-chancellor, the former chief medical officer for Scotland and England, and chairman of the National Trust for Scotland, Sir Ken Calman, told me: “Evelyn left me a wonderful legacy. Among his many achievements was the establishment of a campus at Stockton-on-Tees.”

On the other hand, Dame Rosemary Cramp, the distinguished archaeologist at Durham, recalled that “Ebsworth will be remembered by the way in which he enthusiastically and effectively supported all subjects throughout the university. He and Rose encouraged every kind of university activity. And academic principle was to the forefront of everything he did.”

Retiring in 1998, he moved to Cambridge, where he became chairman of the governors of the Leys School. But my impression from my last phone conversation with Ebsworth was that the Cambridge to which he returned was very different to that which he had left 30 years earlier, and that he regretted not going back to Edinburgh, where he is still so well and affectionately remembered. So highly regarded was he that the current vice chancellor, Sir Tim O’Shea, instructed that flags on all University of Edinburgh buildings be flown at half-mast on the day of his funeral. 

Evelyn Algernon Valentine Ebsworth, inorganic chemist and educational administrator: born 1 February 1933; married 1955 Mary Salter (died 1987; three daughters, one son), 1990 Rose Zuckerman (five stepchildren); died Maine, US 16 July 2015.