Obituary: Professor Joseph Chatt

John Postgate
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:49

Joseph Chatt, research chemist: born Horden, Co Durham 6 November 1914; Research Chemist, Woolwich Arsenal 1941-42; Deputy Chief Chemist (later Chief Chemist), Peter Spence & Sons 1942-46; ICI Research Fellow, Imperial College London 1946-47; Head of Inorganic Chemistry Department, Butterwick Research Laboratories, ICI 1947-60; FRS 1961; Group Manager, Research Department, Heavy Organic Chemicals Division, ICI 1961-62; Director, Research Unit of Nitrogen Fixation, Agricultural Research Council 1963-80; Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, Queen Mary's College, London 1964; Professor of Chemistry, Sussex University 1964-80 (Emeritus); CBE 1978; Wolf Foundation Prize for Chemistry 1981; married 1947 Ethel Williams (one son, one daughter); died Hove 19 May 1994.

JOSEPH CHATT was one of the most distinguished inorganic chemists of his generation.

He was born in County Durham and raised on a farm in Cumberland. A boyish interest in science and in collecting minerals was encouraged at school, and he went on to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and took a first degree in Chemistry in 1937. He developed a then unfashionable interest in inorganic chemistry, but found a sympathetic supervisor for his postgraduate work in Professor FG Mann, with whom he studied metal complexes. In the Second World War, he worked briefly on explosives at Woolwich Arsenal before joining the chemical firm Peter Spence Ltd in 1942, where he rose to become Chief Chemist.

Chatt had not lost his predilection for basic research, however, and in 1947 he joined ICI's new fundamental research laboratory at The Frythe, outside Welwyn. He was given a department of his own and embarked upon a celebrated programme of research which effectively brought inorganic chemistry out of the scientific doldrums into the mainstream of chemistry. Principal themes were the elucidation of the chemical bonding in complexes formed by metals with hydrocarbons called olefins (later important for understanding catalysis in the petroleum industry), and the preparation and characterisation of complexes formed by the so- called 'transition' metals (such as platinum and palladium) with ligands such as organo-phosphines (this work led to a widely used rationalisation of the affinities of metal ions for different classes of ligand). His group produced a historic series of papers, opening new vistas in organo-metallic chemistry. Chatt was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1961.

A downturn in ICI's profits led to The Frythe being closed in 1962. Chatt might well have 'brain drained' to the United States, but a new and exciting research prospect arose from an unexpected direction. Researchers at Dupont's, the US chemical giant, had in 1960 managed to prepare the enzyme responsible for the biological fixation of nitrogen. This is a natural catalyst possessed by certain soil bacteria with which they convert nitrogen gas from the atmosphere into chemical forms that plants can use, a process of profound importance in agriculture and forestry - indeed, in the persistence of life as we know it. There was evidence that a transition metal (molybdenum) was an integral part of the enzyme. The Secretary of the Agricultual Research Council, Professor GE (later Sir Gordon) Cox, invited Chatt to set up and direct a multi-disciplinary research team to work in this area. Chatt recruited me as assistant director in charge of the biological research, and duly the Unit of Nitrogen Fixation was established at Sussex University in 1964-65.

The unit became the centre of Chatt's professional life for the rest of his career. It gained a formidable reputation both abroad and at home; it became a paradigm of successful interdisciplinary research, with chemists, biochemists, microbial physiologists and geneticists homing in on its central problem. Many of its senior staff became world leaders in their special areas, and several of its publications broke entirely new ground. Visiting workers came from all parts of the world and unanimously praised its collaborative atmosphere and effectiveness. By the time Chatt handed over the directorship to me in 1980, it had grown from its intended 24 staff to about 80, including visiting workers.

Chatt accumulated prizes, medals, honours and distinctions from all parts of the world; his entry in Who's Who is an impressive list of achievements. 1978 was an especially rewarding year, bringing him a CBE and an Honorary Fellowship from his old college; and in 1981 he received the Wolf Foundation Prize, an award on a par with the Nobel Prize. Yet he remained modest and friendly, and found time to pursue his hobby of numismatics. With the support and encouragement of his wife Ethel, who survives him, he continued to involve himself in university activities, resisting the inroads of a slow malignancy diagnosed in 1991, until a mercifully quick and peaceful death saved him from its worst ravages.

(Photograph omitted)

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