OBITUARY: Professor Howard Purnell

Howard Purnell, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wales, Swansea, and (since July 1994) President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, was a first-class scientist, an outstanding teacher, a shrewd businessman, a warm-hearted and enthusiastic leader of people, a keen sportsman and the life and soul of the party.

Born in the Rhondda, South Wales, he graduated with a First Class degree in Chemistry at the University of Wales, Cardiff, in 1946. From 1947 to 1952 he was Assistant Lecturer, then Lecturer at Cardiff. But, he said, some of the undergraduates he taught there were "so damned clever that I decided to move to the University of Cambridge to study for another PhD". This he did under the Head of the Department of Physical Chemistry, Professor R.G.W. Norrish.

At Cambridge he rubbed shoulders with the giants in gas-phase chemical kinetics: T.M. Sugden, F.S. Dainton and G. Porter. Upon completion of his doctorate in 1954 he was appointed University Demonstrator, and from 1959 to 1965 he held the posts of University Lecturer in Physical Chemistry and Fellow and Director of Studies in the Natural Sciences at Trinity Hall. Appointed Professor of Physical Chemistry at Swansea in 1965, he was Head of the Department of Chemistry twice (1970-84 and 1988-90) and Vice-Principal of the college from 1982 to 1985.

In an extraordinarily busy life, Purnell held a record number of offices, many of them very demanding. He was founding chairman of the Gas Kinetics Discussion Group of the Chemical Society, Vice-President of the Faraday Division of the Royal Society of Chemistry and of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, Hon Treasurer and Chairman of the International Committee of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and Chairman of the Heads of Departments of Chemistry of the UK.

As a young lecturer in Cardiff, carrying heavy teaching loads, Purnell published competent papers on various aspects of the Phase Rule. On arriving at Cambridge, hitched, as he put it, to the wagon of a future Nobel prizewinner, he took up frontier research in the kinetics of gas-phase reactions. But he also ploughed his own furrow in the field of gas chromatography. Basically, chromatography depends on the distribution of desired substances between two immiscible phases. Its origins go back to the work of the Russian-Italian botanist Michel Tswett, who in the 1910s separated the principal plant pigments such as carotene and chlorophyll by passing them in solution in petroleum ether through a column of powdered chalk.

In 1952, A.T. James and A.J.P. Martin published their seminal paper on gas-liquid chromatography - this earned Martin a share of the Nobel Prize with R.L.M. Synge later that year - and the breakthrough caught Purnell's eye. He set about mastering the theory and practice of gas- solid and gas-liquid chromatography, techniques now of central operational importance in the experimental sciences. Not only do they make possible analyses that are very difficult by other methods, but they make it possible to do them rapidly and in large numbers. Purnell was instrumental in educating chemists in the merits of chromatography. His book Gas Chromatography, published in 1962, provided a vade-mecum for a massive army of investigators the world over.

From 1978 to 1994 Purnell devoted his scientific attention increasingly to the development and use of natural and synthetic alumina-silicate clays as novel catalysts for the chemical conversion of a wide range of organic compounds. This work, which led to several patents, covering entirely new routes to the large-scale production of important solvents and other industrially useful chemicals, began on a train journey from Paddington to Swansea, after an unusually protracted Science and Engineering Research Council meeting in London.

"Let's talk real science," he said with gusto to his fellow passenger, also a chemist. "If you were to give me a cocktail of organic compounds, consisting of some 50 distinct substances, I could guarantee separating them all - and telling you what they were - in no time at all. We have optimised out chromatographic procedures beautifully." "Done!" said his fellow passenger, who a few days earlier had, as it happened, produced a puzzling mixture of products by passing certain alcohols over a montmorillonite clay. Purnell identified all the components of the mixture: the occurrence of some of the constituents was quite unexpected.

Subsequent work led to many new discoveries; and British Petroleum, and then the EEC, supported Purnell's effort in this field for several fruitful years.

In parallel with his scientific and pedagogic work at Swansea, he built up the Department of Chemistry to be one of the best-balanced and liveliest in the UK. He attracted back J.H. Beynon from a professorship in Purdue University to establish the world-class Royal Society Research Unit in Mass Spectrometry. He made imaginative staff appointments; he exposed his students to eminent scientists from industry. His students idolised him. Several of them became captains of industry, and one of his postdoctoral assistants is now Head of the Cambridge University Examination Syndicate.

Howard Purnell had generosity of spirit and was completely devoid of malice. Because of his colourful character and powers of vivid presentation, he was a favourite at international conferences and formal dinners acquired an aura of extra excitement when it was known that he was to be an after- dinner speaker or was to "perform" at the piano.

He is to be succeeded as President of the Royal Society of Chemistry by one of those "clever" undergraduates that prompted his move to Cambridge in 1952: Professor E.W. Abel, of Exeter University.

John Meurig Thomas

John Howard Purnell, chemist: born Rhondda 17 August 1925; Lecturer, University College, Cardiff 1947-52, Demonstrator 1955-60; Lecturer, Cambridge University 1960-65; Professor, University College of Swansea 1965-96 (Emeritus); OBE 1992; President, Royal Society of Chemistry 1994-96; married 1954 Betty Edwards (one son, one daughter); died Swansea 12 January 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory