Obituary: Professor Geoffrey Gee

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The Independent Online
With synthetic polymers (plastics and rubbers) pervading many aspects of modern life, it can be difficult to think back to the 1930s when these "artificial" materials were largely confined to a few resins, such as Bakelite, and regenerated cellulose fibres, such as rayon.

Geoffrey Gee acted in many ways as a guardian of British polymer science, both in smoothing the interaction of Government with industry and academe, and in expanding and safeguarding polymer research in British universities. That polymer chemistry forms part of an honours course in chemistry owes much to his influence.

Gee started research at a time when there was still a reluctance to believe that "real" molecules could have molecular weights of 100,000 or more. Starting in 1938, he undertook a comprehensive study of polymer solutions, which removed any doubt about the nature of these new materials. His definition of cohesive energy density as a determinant of solubility gained lasting acceptance. Many years later Gee co- operated with the physicist S.F. Edwards and the chemist G. Allen in initiating the studies which have brought us to a substantial understanding of the properties of polymer fluids.

Gee came from a rural background, his father being a blacksmith serving the farming communities of New Mills and Disley, in Cheshire. The Wesleyan Chapel was the foundation of a sincere religious belief which influenced the whole of his life. He was introduced to chemistry at New Mill Secondary School, and went on to read Chemistry at Manchester in 1928. His introduction to research was in colloid science (the science of small particles in suspension) at Manchester under D.C. Henry, after which he transferred to Cambridge in 1933, financed by ICI Dyestuffs, to work with Eric Rideal, in a stimulating group which included H.W. Melville, R.M. Barrer and A.S.C. Lawrence. His connection with ICI inclined his work towards polymers, and eventually led to his appointment at the British Rubber Producers Research Association (BRPRA) in 1938.

The policy of the board of BRPRA was simply defined - to understand rubber through a programme of fundamental research. In addition to work on polymer solutions, studies by Gee's team of elastic behaviour under various types of deformation, and of the kinetics of oxidative and photo- oxidative degradation of hydrocarbons, produced results of lasting value.

His appointment as Director of Research of BRPRA in 1947 took him away from the laboratory bench and into administration, although he still found time for a "paper and pencil study" of molten sulphur which anticipated a continuing interest in ring-chain equilibria. This was a time when natural rubber was meeting for the first time the challenge from synthetics, and Gee's achievement was to formulate technical specifications which placed the natural material securely in the family of elastomers, allowing a greater understanding of it in relation to synthetic materials.

In 1953 Gee took up the Chair of Physical Chemistry in Manchester. Within a year he became head of department, a position he occupied for the next 20 years. Here he built up a research group in the physical chemistry of polymers: the group continues to the present day as one of the largest and most active in the UK.

As Dean of the Faculty of Sci-ence from 1963 to 1965, Gee played a part in the creation of the Department of Liberal Studies in Science. A brief stay in Midland, Michigan, sponsored by the Dow Chemical Company, gave him a chance for uninterrupted research, which was not to recur until his retirement in 1977: in 1966 he was appointed Pro-Vice Chancellor, from which followed a continuing involvement with the foundation and administration of the new John Rylands University Library, the Regional Computing Centre, and the increasingly important University Development Committee.

Gee contributed widely to public and scientific life. Soon after arriving in Manchester he was invited to serve as chairman of the Materials Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Supply, and to lay the groundwork for future liaison between ministry laboratories and universities. He was President of the Faraday Society in 1969-70, and a founding editor of Polymer, which became a leading international journal of research.

All his life Gee was an active worker in the Methodist Church, reflecting a steadfast faith untroubled by his scientific insight. He took a particular interest in the relationship between science and religion, and in retirement took a major share in the writing of God of Science, God of Faith (1988).

Geoffrey Gee, chemist: born Disley, Cheshire 6 June 1910; research chemist, ICI (Dyestuffs Group) 1933-38; research chemist, British Rubber Producers' Research Association 1938-47, Director of Research 1947-53; FRS 1951; Professor of Physical Chemistry, Manchester University 1953-1955, Sir Samuel Hall Professor of Chemistry 1955-1977 (Emeritus), Pro-Vice Chancellor 1966-68, 1972-77; CBE 1958; Chairman Joint Services Materials Advisory Committee 1953-58; President, Faraday Society 1969-70; married 1934 Marion Bowden (one son, two daughters); died Cheadle Hulme 13 December 1996.