Obituary: Professor Harry Emeleus
Thursday 23 December 1993
HARRY EMELEUS had a profound impact on the development of inorganic chemistry in Britain and a lasting influence on the approach to the subject by countless research students from the UK, the Commonwealth, the United States and Europe. His seminal book Modern Aspects of Inorganic Chemistry (1938), conceived and written with his colleague JS Anderson when they were both junior members of staff at Imperial College, London, presented the subject in an entirely new and exciting way, which revived interest in an area of chemistry that had almost completely disappeared as an undergraduate and research field in Britain.
Subsequently, Emeleus built up an internationally acclaimed school of inorganic chemistry in Cambridge which dominated the subject for several decades. An astonishing number of his research students and collaborators went on to distinguished careers and to senior academic positions both in Britain and abroad. He was remembered by them with affection and respect, and most traced their subsequent achievements to the lessons learnt during their time in his laboratory.
Harry Emeleus was born in 1903. His father was of Huguenot stock and had come to England from Finland, where many members of the family still remain. He was educated at Hastings Grammar School and at Imperial College, from where he graduated in 1923. He stayed on to study various aspects of the luminescent oxidation of phosphorous and to investigate spectroscopically the light emitted from several phosphorescent flames, and was awarded his PhD in 1925. An Exhibition of 1851 studentship then enabled him to go to Karlsruhe, where he worked with the renowned German preparative chemist Alfred Stock, then at the peak of his very considerable powers.
Emeleus regarded this as the turning point in his career, for it brought him into the mainstream of synthetic inorganic chemistry, and the use of all-glass vacuum-line equipment to prepare and purify highly reactive compounds that immediately decomposed in the normal laboratory atmosphere. Out of necessity he became an expert glassblower and derived great pleasure from this activity.
He spent the years 1929 to 1931 as a Commonwealth Fund Fellow, working on photochemical problems in the laboratory of HS (later Sir Hugh) Taylor at Princeton. It was here that he met his future wife, Catherine Horton. The strict regulations of the Commonwealth Fund stipulated that Fellows should not marry during the term of the award and that they must return to their home country after their stay in the US. The rules were meticulously observed and the couple were married on their return trip to England by boat, at the end of the fellowship. In later years, many overseas research students enjoyed the generous hospitality and southern charm of Catherine Emeleus at their home in Cambridge.
Emeleus was appointed to the staff of the Chemistry Department at Imperial College in 1931, eventually becoming Reader in Inorganic Chemistry. He made notable contributions to the chemistry of reactive silanes and non-metal fluoride derivatives, as well as collaborating with JS Anderson on Modern Aspects of Inorganic Chemistry, the landmark textbook which, through its several revised editions, and for over 30 years had a dramatic impact on perceptions of the subject.
During the Second World War Emeleus worked on chemical defence topics, including incendiary weapons, and his growing interest in fluorine chemistry was made apparent in his Tilden Lecture to the Chemical Society in 1942. In 1944 he went to the Oak Ridge Laboratory, Tennessee, to work on the Manhattan Project where his expertise in handling extremely reactive compounds was of value, in dealing with uranium hexafluoride during isotope separations for the atomic weapons programme.
In 1945 Emeleus was appointed Reader in Inorganic Chemistry at Cambridge and elected a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College: that year a personal Chair was created for him, which he held until his retirement in 1970. His research interests diversified and he made notable contributions to the chemistry of the halogen fluorides, pioneering their use as non-aqueous solvents in preparative chemistry. Fluorocarbon derivatives of many elements were also synthesised. He had an unerring skill in choosing fertile new areas for study and motivating his young research group, which came from all over the world. This subtle combination of art and skill came from possessing a deep insight into reaction chemistry and he made no pretensions as a theorist; indeed, he was fond of saying that for him the symbol S always stood for the element sulphur, never for the thermodynamic functionentropy.
Honours and awards flowed. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1946, and appointed CBE in 1958. He was President of the Chemical Society in 1960-62 and President of the Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1963-65. His enormous influence was reflected in his election to honorary membership of national chemical societies as widely spread as France, Germany, Austria, Finland, India and Bangladesh, and to many learned academies including those of Belgium, Spain, Gottingen, Halle and Catania. He held honorary doctorates from nearly a dozen universities and was awarded the Davy Medal of the Royal Society, the Lavoisier Medal of the French Chemical Society and, most unusually for a foreigner, the Alfred Stock Medal of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker.
Despite this panoply of honours, Emeleus remained a quiet, modest man. His kindly manner, abiding courtesy and gentle sense of humour endeared him to colleagues and students alike. His legacy is a rejuvenated academic discipline and a world-wide network of disciples who have been enriched by his intellectual skills and his personal charm.
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