OBITUARY:Professor F.C. Tompkins

Share
Related Topics
Frederick Tompkins was a physical chemist of great distinction whose contributions to the development of two research fields, surface science and solid state reactions, were matched by his long service as Secretary and Editor of the Faraday Society. Throughout his career he had the knack of attracting bright young students into his research group and, through a rigorous apprenticeship, turning them out as scientists who went on to occupy senior academic positions around the world. Thus his influence extended well beyond his own immediate contributions.

Tompkins's early studies of adsorption (the taking-up of gases by surfaces) on solid surfaces were on polar solids but, although this was always maintained as an interest, perhaps his best known contributions to adsorption studies were on metal surfaces. Work initiated in the 1950s, based on metal films deposited under stringent conditions and covering a range of different physical techniques, established his reputation firmly in the field of chemisorption on metals. Students and postdoctoral workers of his continued the development of this field.

Tompkins was born in Yeovil, Somerset, in 1910, and was pleased to record that his scientific attainment at Yeovil Grammar School, which won him a County Scholarship to Bristol University, was matched by his talent as an essayist and as a pianist. As an undergraduate he was greatly influenced by the teaching of William Garner and of John Lennard-Jones, and at the age of 20 he graduated, First Class, in chemistry and theoretical physics. He completed his PhD at Bristol with Garner, who first introduced him to both surface and solid state chemistry.

After a period at King's College, London, as an Assistant Lecturer, he joined the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, where he spent nine formative years in research, first as Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer. He had married Catherine Macdougal in 1936, one year before leaving for South Africa, and it was in that country that their only child, Josephine, was born.

Pioneering work on the kinetics of the decomposition of solids was conducted in Pietermaritzburg with his student E.G. Prout, who was later promoted to the Chair of Physical Chemistry at the University of Cape Town. The Prout- Tompkins equation became widely quoted in the field. It was there that Tompkins also initiated P.W.M. Jacobs into research, and it was Jacobs who, first at Imperial College, London, with Tompkins, and later at the University of Western Ontario, took up the baton in solid state chemical kinetics. Tompkins kept his contacts with South Africa, both through his ex-students and by recruiting researchers to his team, after returning to London.

In 1946 he returned to King's College as a Research Fellow, and after a year moved to a Readership at Imperial College where he stayed for the next 30 years until his retirement. Having published almost exclusively in the Transactions of the Faraday Society, the house journal of British and Commonwealth physical chemists, it was perhaps natural that the talented but fastidious young scientist should also, on returning to Britain, be elected as Secretary and Editor of the Faraday Society, a post he held for the next 30 years. In 1955 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1959 to a Personal Chair at Imperial College.

The 1950s and 1960s proved to be a golden period for the Chemistry Department at Imperial College. The place nurtured four remarkably distinguished (and different) individuals, two of whom, Derek Barton and Geoffrey Wilkinson, were later to be awarded Nobel Prizes. From the time of his appointment in 1946 as Reader, Tompkins was the senior physical chemist, but when the college decided to create a Chair of Physical Chemistry in 1954, it turned to R.M. Barrer, who was then Professor of Physical Chemistry at Aberdeen. From this point on he Tompkins took no interest in policy matters involving the department or the college. Nevertheless, independently of each other, Barrer and Tompkins created an enviable reputation for the college in the field of surface science.

His contributions as Editor of the Faraday Society were remarkable. With just one assistant, for very many years he acted both as Editor and as desk editor, marking up every paper in green pen for the printer, Aberdeen Press, in his inimitable style - all unnecessary phrases suffering the heavy green line. Yet it was only when the Faraday Society was incorporated into the Chemical Society in 1971 to form what is now the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the publication of the journal was taken over by the Society, that the cost-effectiveness of this one-man dynamo was fully realised. He served as President of the Faraday Division of the new amalgamated society in 1978-79.

Tompkins - Tommy to his friends and Fred (out of earshot) to his research group - was never an easy person socially, and while many of us enjoyed his dry, sharp wit, his ability as a raconteur and his patience, others did suffer from his sharp tongue. Strangely, although he instilled great vigour and creativity into his research, he showed, as Editor, little respect for developments in theoretical chemistry, and the Transactions of the Faraday Society was, as a result, always rather strongly biased towards experiment. Despite his formal, ordered Victorian manner and his love for the loneliness of gardening, he did show great warmth and encouragement to those whom he hoped to see succeed. He had, above all, the rare ability to create an environment in which the best research could flourish.

David King

Frederick Clifford Tompkins, chemist: born Yeovil, Somerset 29 August 1910; Assistant Lecturer, King's College London 1934-37, ICI Fellow 1946- 47; Senior Lecturer, University of Natal 1937-46; Reader in Physical Chemistry, Imperial College of Science and Technology 1947-59, Professor 1959-77 (Emeritus); Editor and Secretary of Faraday Division of the Chemical Society (formerly the Faraday Society) 1950- 77, President 1978-79; FRS 1955; married 1936 Catherine Macdougal (one daughter); died Portsmouth, Hampshire 5 November 1995.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher - September 2014

£100 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for a Teacher of...

English Teacher

Main Teacher Pay Scale : Randstad Education Leeds: English Teacher RequiredImm...

KS2 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day + tax deductable expenses: Randstad Education Leicester: KS...

B2B Bids and Tenders Pricing Specialist

£35000 - £45000 per annum + excellent company benefits : Pro-Recruitment Group...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor’s Letter: Britain's sexism

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back

Nigel Farage
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

Politicians urged to find radical solution
Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

Ukraine crisis

How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

A history of the First World War in 100 moments
Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?