Obituary: George Milner
Tuesday 01 April 1997
At Harwell Milner led a team of analysts that built an international reputation for the quality and innovativeness of its work in the exacting field of atomic energy. His judgement and meticulousness set the standards which led to success in characterising the materials essential to the developing industry.
Not only was it essential to analyse chemically many proto-type nuclear fuels, before and after irradiation, it was also important to characterise the wide variety of metals, alloys, ceramics and fluids used in the construction and operation of nuclear reactors and plant. Solutions were needed that could be applied, with safety, to the analysis of radioactive materials, including thorium, uranium, plutonium and higher actinides, and involved operations in glove boxes and high-activity shielded cells.
As analytical chemistry advanced technically, the methods and instrumentation introduced into the Actinide Analysis Group kept pace with modern standards, ever improving over the years, which produced a sound foundation that lives on today in the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and its fledgling, privatised offshoot, AEA Technology plc.
Milner's personal forte was in the field of electrochemical analysis, particularly the development of polarography and coulometry, electrical methods of identifying elements and measuring them quantitively. While the former has been largely displaced by more modern methods of trace element analysis, the latter continues to be an important technique for the high accuracy determination of plutonium which features today in the control of nuclear materials for International Safeguards purposes.
In 1957, Milner published an authoritative and comprehensive book, Principles and Applications of Polarography and Other Related Techniques. He also co-authored Coulometry in Analytical Chemistry (1967), with the late G. Phillips, a member of his team.
He took advantage of spectrophotometry (a method of measurement using colour) in its early days for trace element analysis, as well as, separation methods based on solvent extraction and chromatography as they developed. While the confidential nature of his work often prevented its publication openly, his researches on the analysis of exotic and less common elements appeared in relevant scientific journals, and their value won him awards and built his acknowledged reputation as a leader in his field.
Milner was the son of a master builder. He was born in 1918, at Rossington in West Yorkshire, and was brought up in nearby Hatfield. He was educated at Doncaster Grammar School followed by Sheffield University where he gained a first class degree in science. His interest in both chemistry and physics led to Membership of the Institute of Physics in 1947 and establishment as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1948.
During the Second World War, Milner worked for the Admiralty in the new Bragg Laboratory of the Naval Ordnance Inspection Laboratory in Sheffield, applying himself to the development of new approaches in the analysis of metals and alloys.
In 1946 he was appointed as a Lecturer in Chemistry at what is now Hull University. There he aided Professor Brynmor Jones, who later became Vice- Chancellor, to set up the chemistry laboratories. His association with atomic energy began in 1948 when he returned to the Bragg Laboratory to work on analytical developments for the national programme. As a consequence, in 1951 he joined the Analytical Chemistry Branch of the Chemistry Division at AERE, Harwell. He travelled widely presenting the work of his group to scientific bodies here and abroad, building his international reputation. His eminence as an analytical chemist was also recognised by the Society for Analytical Chemistry in 1972 when they awarded him their prestigious Gold Medal, their highest accolade.
The profession of analytical chemistry owes much to Milner. Up to the amalgamation of the Society of Analytical Chemistry with the Chemical Society in 1975, he served the former both as its Treasurer and its final President. He played a central role in the amalgamation process that unified the nation's societies devoted to chemistry.
During the initial "trial" period, the SAC continued to exist long enough to celebrate its Centenary under Milner's presidency. On final amalgamation, he ensured that the SAC's special responsibility for promoting Analytical Chemistry was guaranteed in the future by transferring its assets into the new Analytical Chemistry Trust Fund. This now supports much university research, as well as the promotion of the profession, to its lasting benefit.
On the formation of the Analytical Division of the new amalgamated society, Milner was invited to serve as its first President. After retirement he continued to give voluntary service to the profession and to the end was the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Analytical Methods Trust.
As a young man, Milner was an active sportsman representing his school and university at rugby football, and playing squash and tennis. In later years, he found relaxation through walking and gardening.
J. W. McMillan
George William Colin Milner, analytical chemist: born Rossington, West Yorkshire 20 January 1918; married 1947 Irene Cressey (one daughter); died Abingdon, Oxfordshire 16 February 1997.
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