Obituary: Professor Max McGlashan

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The Independent Online
Max McGlashan was a thermodynamicist, Professor and Head of the Chemistry Department at University College London from 1974 to 1989, and a major contributor to modern practice in the field of symbols, units and nomenclature in chemistry and in science in general.

His interests in thermodynamics lay in a science that is theoretically abstract, well-worn and unfashionable. He propounded the view that in its applications to chemistry and material technology, however, it continues to be both important and useful, above all as an experimental science. Most of his publications deal with the precise measurement of macroscopic physico-chemical quantities, and his book Chemical Thermodynamics (1979) lays unusual emphasis on experimental methods.

He was the founding editor, in 1969, of the Journal of Chemical Thermodynamics and during 27 years as Executive Editor he technically edited more than 3,700 papers; making sure that each of the 32,000 pages met his high standards of clarity and precision.

But Max McGlashan will be most widely remembered for his influence on the important developments in symbols, units and terminology in science in the last 30 years. He presented his views on this subject through the activities of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) - where he was chairman of the important Technical Committee 12 on symbols and nomenclature in the physical sciences - and the Comite International des Poids et Mesures (Metre Convention). He was a member of the Metrication Board and served on the Royal Society's Symbols Committee, writing extensively on the subject.

He played a leading role in the development of the use of quantity algebra and the adoption in science quite generally of the International System of Units (SI), and in furthering our understanding of one of these quantities in particular, basic to the whole of quantitative chemistry, now called amount of substance and its unit, the mole.

He propagated his views with remorseless logic and an almost idiosyncratic strength, which often gave offence; but he was very often right. When he failed it was because he was too far ahead of the world he lived in, which is more often governed by history and precedent than by logic. It is his obstinacy and strength of will that we shall miss.

Born in New Zealand in 1924, McGlashan attended Canterbury University College (now the University of Canterbury) at Christchurch. Attracted equally to the Classics and physical sciences, he opted for the latter and graduated in Chemistry in 1946.

Three years later he came to Reading University for postgraduate work towards a PhD (1951) under the guidance of the redoubtable Edward Guggenheim, who became his teacher, friend and hero and from whom he developed his lifelong interest, and not a little of his style, in both thermodynamics and in the terminology and symbolic language of science. After a brief return to his Alma Mater, he finally settled in Britain in 1954, as Lecturer in Chemistry, later Reader, at Reading. There, together with Guggenheim and a small number of colleagues, he played a key role in building up the Chemistry Department in the post-war years.

He brought with him two other enduring passions from his student days: for the classical theatre and for the mountains. From beginnings as stage- manager of a company touring New Zealand with Hamlet and Othello in 1944, followed by a similar tour of Australia in 1949, he produced memorable performances of Two Gentlemen of Verona, King Lear and The Two Noble Kinsmen in Reading in the 1940s, the last-named taken as a fringe production on to the Stratford Festival.

As a mountaineer his heart lay among the glaciers and 4,000ers of the Swiss Alps. He became a member of the Swiss Alpine Club and for almost 50 years he and his wife Susan were regular summer visitors. Among many friends and colleagues lucky enough to climb with them, Michael Beer recalls the occasion when, benighted high up on a glacier, "Max told us it was essential to keep awake and that we each had to talk for at least an hour on a particular topic. His choice was the Metrication Board."

McGlashan left Reading in 1964 for the Chair of Physical Chemistry at Exeter University. In 1979 he moved to London to become head of the Chemistry Department at University College London, a position he held until his retirement in 1989. They turned out to be difficult years, following the collapse of the post-Robbins optimism of the 1960s, in sciences in particular.

He inherited a department spread over two distant sites, one of them a new building that was to have been Stage 1 in a two-phase expansion promised by the University Grants Committee in 1965, Stage II of which never materialised; the other the original building of 1913 now hopelessly unfitted for modern chemistry.

He witnessed the effective collapse of the dual-funding convention of the universities by central government, which, driven by largely mindless formula-funding, left him with a departmental recurrent grant in 1989 of only 11 per cent of its value in 1974, an established staffing of 19 academic posts down from 34, in a London University of 10 chemistry departments reduced to four and a half. They were 15 years of attrition and damage limitation that took all of McGlashan's energy, wisdom and political acumen just to keep things together.

Perhaps his most enduring achievement was to divert a college windfall in 1979 towards major modifications of the ill-fated new building, modifications he personally planned in detail, leading finally to a reunification of the department in 1983. Inevitably there were conflicts, but for the strength of leadership that McGlashan gave and the close collegiality going back to Sir Christopher Ingold's days that survived, both the department and the college have cause to be grateful.

Max McGlashan was a strong personality. He had immense intellectual strength, which tended to dominate his thinking and expression at all times, backed by unshakeable recourse to facts. This could be daunting in argument and used at times mercilessly, assuming as he did, perhaps unconsciously, that his opponent was equally equipped. It could be intensely stimulating in conversation, which could range over an immensely wide repertoire of subjects, particularly historical, both within science and outside it. He could be charming and kind, especially towards students with personal problems.

Deep down he had a romantic streak, which tended to surface in reminiscences of dramas on obdurate mountain peaks or down conspiratorially concealed crevasses, or of bottles of Latour '59 consumed in deepest Michigan. His activities on commissions and as journal editor gave him an immensely wide circle of friends, colleagues and acquaintances; no one who met him will ever forget him.

And yet, what monument will he have left? One recalls his response when asked at the interview before coming to UCL what he regarded as the function of an academic. It is to be the curator of his subject, he said: to learn it, to understand it as a living body of knowledge, to review it critically, to prune it of the obsolete, to add to it the new, and then to pass it on to the next generation. McGlashan did all these to the full, both within his chosen field and the wider infrastructure of science. He was a scholar of the old school.

He fought his cancer with the same energy and fortitude as he did everything else, and only a few weeks before he died he chaired an ISO/TC12 meeting in London on units and terminology. In January he and his wife celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.

Ian Mills, Michael Ewing and John Callomon

Maxwell Len McGlashan, chemist: born Greymouth, New Zealand 1 April 1924; Lecturer in Chemistry, Reading University 1954-61, Reader 1962-64; Professor of Physical Chemistry, Exeter University 1964-74; Professor of Chemistry and Head of the Chemistry Department, University College London 1974-89; Chairman, Commission on Physicochemical Symbols, Terminology and Units of the International Unions of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) 1967-71; Chairman, British Standards Institute Technical Committee concerned with quantities, symbols, units and related matters, 1977-95; member, Metrication Board 1969-80; member, Comite Consultatif des Unites of the Comite International des Poids et Mesures, 1969-97; married 1947 Susan Crosse; died 18 July 1997.

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