Obituary: Sir Richard Norman

David Waddington
Friday 11 June 1993 23:02

Richard Oswald Chandler Norman, chemist: born 27 April 1932; Fellow and Tutor, Merton College, Oxford 1958-65 (Hon Fellow 1988); University Lecturer in Chemistry, Oxford University 1958- 65; Professor of Chemistry, York University 1965-87; seconded as Chief Scientific Adviser, MoD 1983-1988; Kt 1987; Rector, Exeter College, Oxford 1987-93; Chief Scientific Adviser, Department of Energy 1988-1993; books include Principles of Organic Synthesis 1968, Modern Organic Chemistry (with DJ Waddington) 1972; married 1982 Jennifer Tope; died Oxford 6 June 1993.

RICHARD NORMAN's career spanned teaching and research in organic chemistry of the first rank at the universities of Oxford and York, the presidencies of the Royal Institute of Chemistry and the Royal Society of Chemistry, a spell as Chief Scientific Adviser to two large government departments, those of Defence and Energy, and the rectorship of Exeter College, Oxford.

Whereas most people would have been happy to have succeeded in just one of these areas, Dick Norman not only succeeded in all but at the same time is the man who drove around in most improbably battered cars (a rusty green Jaguar 2.4 is still known in my family as a Dickiecar), who is remembered in Oxford as an undergraduate who was a fine cricketer, bridge-player and party-goer, who mastered everything he took up, be it gardening, riding or photography.

It is often, in accounts of this nature, that the family is kept until last. That would miss the point. For central to Dick Norman's happiness was his marriage to Jenny, begun in romantic style over a Christmas vacation, solemnised at the Anglican Cathedral of St George by the Dean of Jerusalem.

From St Paul's School, west London, Norman won an Open Scholarship to Balliol College. He always said that he was lucky with his teachers, Jack Strawson at school and Ronnie Bell and Alec Waters at Balliol. Winning the Gibbs Scholarship in 1953 on the way to a First, he chose to study under Waters for his doctorate. A fellowship at Merton College in 1958 followed, and with the other Chemistry Fellow, Courtney Phillips, he ensured that Merton had an enviable record of undergraduate distinction. Norman's reputation as one of Oxford's best minds ensured that he attracted such students as Jeremy Knowles FRS, now Dean of Harvard, and George Radda FRS, Oxford's Professor of Molecular Cardiology.

I met Dick Norman in 1959. I was a schoolteacher who had written a textbook, and was urged by a friend who had been taught by him to seek his advice. He came over to visit my wife and myself for a 'quick cup of tea' and a discussion of the book. He left after breakfast the next day and our friendship had begun. When the first Vice-Chancellor at York University, Lord James of Rusholme, was looking for a founder for the Department of Chemistry, Norman's name was in the frame and he was appointed in 1962, before his 30th birthday.

One of his first actions was typical: he wanted me to come with him. Although the appointment of a schoolteacher seemed bizarre, his experience at Oxford had taught him how important relationships between schools and universities were. I was, in turn, excited by his vision, for he was determined not to follow the line taken by many of the universities at that time, having sub-disciplines each with its own Chair, its own empire. We were to be a seamless whole; we were simply chemists. He was determined too to reap the benefits of the single subject, studying chemistry in depth while at the same time ensuring that students appreciated the burgeoning areas such as biochemistry and chemical physics. Later still, under his influence, the department chose even wider horizons, covering, for example, industrial economics and environmental chemistry, long before it was fashionable to do so. At the same time, he brought to the department the best attributes of Oxford, including its tutorial system.

His formidable talents as a lecturer were recognised by undergraduates at York. His lectures at the start of the course demonstrated the importance of structure, thermodynamics and kinetics to the understanding of organic chemistry and exemplified the holistic approach to chemistry with which he had already enthralled undergraduates at Oxford. These lectures formed the basis of the early chapters of his undergraduate text Principles of Organic Synthesis (1968), dedicated to 'RPB' and 'WAW' - Ronnie Bell and Alec Waters, who must have warmed with this public demonstration of his debt to them so early in his career. By chance, the proofs of the third edition, written in collaboration with Jim Coxon, arrived on my desk a few days ago. This book changed the landscape of organic chemistry texts when it was published; now it has been freshened with new ideas and examples and will be a fitting memorial to Norman's talents as a teacher.

His research work was dominated by the technique of electron spin resonance, which enables chemists to determine the presence of radicals, important intermediates in chemical reactions which may only last millionths or sub-millionths of a second, but without this knowledge it is often impossible to determine how the reaction occurs. Norman and WateETHER write errorrs saw the possibilities of this technique and exploited it, separately, to the full. Norman's research work, described in a series of classical papers, has been acknowledged by his peers throughout his career.

Before his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1977, Norman won the Meldola Medal of the then Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1961, the Corday Morgan Medal and Tilden Lectureship of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1967 and 1976. Both these institutions were, like Oxford and York, superbly served by him. From 1978 to 1980, he was President of the Royal Institute of Chemistry - its last President, for 1980 saw the amalgamation of the RIC with the Chemical Society which emerged as the Royal Society of Chemistry. Bringing together two such bodies of distinction and size, with their own traditions and personnel, was a tough assignment, made worse in this case by the unfortunate illness of the Secretary and Registrar of the RIC, Eric Parker. Norman played a leading role in fashioning the new organisation. He was the obvious Chairman of the key committee in the new RSC, that of the Qualification and Examinations Board, and then became President of the Society from 1984 to 1986.

In 1974, we introduced a Masters degree course for schoolteachers in the Department of Chemistry at York. Norman suggested that we asked the Salters Company, the London livery company which through its Institute of Industrial Chemistry had funded many schemes in universities, to found a bursary scheme to allow teachers to come to York for a term. So began an important part of Norman's life, leading a year later to the Directorship of the Salters' Institute and in 1984, much to his delight, election as a member of the Livery. During his directorship, the institute started many new initiatives in schools and is now seen as a leading promoter of innovation in science education, another example of bringing together universities and schools.

In 1983, he was invited to become Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence. I know nothing in detail of his work but what shone through was the excitement of yet another challenge, the respect he acquired for his colleagues, and a real sense of enjoyment at being at the centre of influence.

And thence, in 1987, to the Rectorship of Exeter College, Oxford. He had come home.

I phoned the Dean at Balliol to check some dates. During our conversation, John Jones (himself a chemist) remarked, 'Of course, he is remembered at the college as a cricketer.' And, a little later, 'Tell me, when is his third edition coming out? I have told my students not to buy another book until it is published.' Dick would have been delighted by both comments.

(Photograph omitted)

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