Obituary: Professor Keble Sykes

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The Independent Online
When John (later Lord) Fulton moved from being a philosophy don at Balliol to take up the Principalship of the University College of Swansea in 1947, he set in train a number of processes that were to make that small young college (it was founded in 1922) one of the most dynamic university establishments in the country - it certainly had one of the best undergraduate chemistry programmes among the 30 or so universities in Britain.

One reason for Fulton's success was that he took infinite pains - and saw to it that his heads of department did also - in recruiting first- rate members of staff. One of the people he, and his inspired Professors of Chemistry, C.W. Shoppee and his predecessor, J.E. Coates, attracted to Swansea was Keble Sykes.

Before his departure from Oxford, Sykes was, from 1945 to 1948, a member of the trio of highly talented ICI Research Fellows in Sir Cyril Hinshelwood's Physical Chemistry Laboratory, the others being C.A. Coulson (later Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford) and J.W. Linnett (later Head of the Department of Physical Chemistry at Cambridge).

At Oxford, Sykes had made a name for himself in Hinshelwood's laboratory by elucidating the mechanism of the gasification of carbon (coconut charcoals especially), and in particular he showed that the surface oxides formed when such solids burn at high temperature either in oxygen, steam or carbon dioxide, were identical kinetically and probably structurally. For this work he was awarded the Sir George Beilby Medal of the Society of Chemical Industry and Chemical Society. (One of his students at this time was a Miss Margaret Roberts who later achieved a certain eminence outside the field of chemistry.)

At Swansea he extended these studies and backed them up with adventures into the catalytic influences of alkali metal salts and transition metal oxides on the gasification of carbons generally. His theoretical formulations as to why such additives significantly decrease the temperature at which carbons oxidised led him, in turn, to predict sharp differences in reactivity between graphite and diamond, and also to undertake fundamental studies of other important industrial reactions such as the formation of volatile nickel carbonyl from metallic nickel and carbon monoxide. He and his early research students also investigated the fiendishly complicated interactions between carbon surfaces and S2, H2S and COS, and in so doing clarified the mechanism of the formation of CS2.

He also branched out into the spectroscopic solution chemistry of transition metal ions, focusing especially on the importance of hydration shells in elementary reactions such as the oxidation of aqueous iodide by ferric ions. This work attracted the attention of Swedish solution chemists, such as L.G. Sillen, who were pre-eminent in that field.

But the impact of Sykes's sojourn at Swansea is not to be measured by his research endeavours, significant as those were. It was the phenomenal commitment to, and the intellectual authority that characterised, his undergraduate teaching that still make his former students (like me) marvel at what he managed to achieve in that exceptionally busy period of his life. Each year from 1948 to 1956, he gave 25 lectures on introductory chemical thermodynamics, 30 on advanced thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, 10 on radiochemistry and 25 on structural inorganic chemistry; in addition, he undertook six hours of laboratory supervision a week.

These were not untypical teaching loads for lecturers in provincial universities in those days. Sykes, however, went substantially further: he imported many of the admirable features of Oxbridge supervision into his teaching at Swansea. For example, once a week a class of some 150 first-year students were set three problems to solve. He marked all the scripts himself. Moreover, in his lectures to senior undergraduates, he took pains to advise them which original articles and specialised monographs to consult, and which not to. It was the kind of advice that he himself had been given at Queen's College, Oxford, where he was an outstanding scholar.

In 1956 he was appointed to the newly established Chair of Physical Chemistry at Queen Mary (now Queen Mary and Westfield) College, London University. The Head of the Department was then Professor Michael Dewar, and when he departed to the United States in 1959 Keble Sykes took up the reins and guided the department until 1978, when he became (sole) Vice-Principal, working closely and fruitfully with the Principal, Sir James Menter.

At QMC, Sykes soon established a thriving research group. His laboratory was housed in a wooden hut clad with corrugated iron, and there was a disconcerting tendency for rain to penetrate the roof and run down the wall beside the main fuse-box. Nevertheless, work on gas-solid reactions and on ionic solutions prospered. He continued his excellent teaching, and generations of students there, like those who listened to him in Swansea, benefited enormously from his deep understanding of chemical phenomena. They were also impressed by his modesty, humility and general human decency.

Both in retrospect, and at the time, it was often said, "Keble Sykes is a gentleman." The respect he elicited endeared him to all his colleagues at QMC, where he served as Dean of the Faculty of Science (1970-73), as Vice-Principal from 1978 until his retirement in 1986, and as chairman of many key committees and working parties including the University Grants Committee's Physical Sciences Sub-Committee. He was subsequently elected an Honorary Fellow of the college.

He also contributed much to the Chemical Society of London. He edited the society's special publication on Stability Constants, a reflection of his expertise in the subject of ionic solutions. He served as Honorary Secretary from 1960 to 1966, as Vice-President from 1966 to 1969, as a member of Council of the successor body, the Royal Society of Chemistry, from 1977 to 1980, as Chairman of the Publications and Information Board, the Chemistry in Britain Committee and the Benevolent Fund Committee.

Despite all these commitments, a full family life, wide outside interests ranging from gardening to photography and walking to DIY, as well as keen membership of the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, he found time to attend with his wife Margaret - whom he met when they were lecturers in Swansea - every college function (public lectures, carol services, charter week concerts, plays, graduate receptions, international evenings and dances) for 30 years in Queen Mary College. The fact that Queen Mary and Westfield has now such an enterprising and well-equipped Department of Chemistry owes a great deal to the devotion and far-sightedness of this kindly and extraordinarily able man.

Keble Watson Sykes, chemist: born 7 January 1921; Lecturer in Chemistry, University College of Swansea, University of Wales 1948-51, Senior Lecturer 1951-56; Professor of Physical Chemistry, Queen Mary (later Queen Mary and Westfield) College, London 1956-86, Head of Chemistry Department 1959- 78, Dean, Faculty of Science 1970-73, Vice-Principal 1978-86; married 1950 Margaret Forsyth (three daughters, and one son deceased); died 24 May 1997.