8 October - 21 October 1996
STAFF NEWSPAPER OF IMPERIAL COLLEGE OF SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND MEDICINE
Geoffrey Wilkinson 1921 - 1996
Professor Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson, FRS, Nobel Laureate and emeritus professor of inorganic chemistry at IC died suddenly on 26 September, aged 75.
His association with Imperial goes back to 1939 when he entered the College as a Royal Scholar to read chemistry. He was awarded the top first class Honours BSc in 1941 and commenced his PhD studies here. At the early age of 34 he was appointed professor of inorganic chemistry. This was in 1955 when Imperial had the only established chair in inorganic chemistry in Britain. Sir Geoffrey held this professorship (renamed the Sir Edward Frankland chair of inorganic chemistry) until he retired in 1988, when he was appointed emeritus professor. He was provided with a new laboratory funded by Johnson Matthey in which he continued to run a small but lively and creative research group until his death.
Sir Geoffrey's scientific work spanned 55 years during which he made outstanding contributions to organometallic chemistry - the study of compounds which contain direct metal-carbon bonds. His interest in organometallic chemistry developed in the early 1950s during his time at Harvard and MIT. The crucial moment of his career came at Harvard when, together with the organic chemist and later Nobel Laureate R.B. Woodward, he recognised the unprecedented molecular structure of the organometallic compound now known as ferrocene.
Wilkinson, being an inorganic chemist, immediately set about investigating the fundamental ideas suggested by this molecule and took advantage of his extensive knowledge of transition metal chemistry.
This, combined with an outstanding experimental intuition, resulted in a 40-year period of extraordinary productivity whereby he revealed the enormous extent of this new area known as organo-transition metal chemistry. In Germany, Professor E.O. Fischer also appreciated the significance of the ferrocene structure. Between them, Wilkinson and Fischer pioneered the development of this new field with such success that they were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973.
Professor Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson was a caring and supportive family man and a proud grandfather. He is survived by his wife, Lise, and their two daughters, Anne and Pernille.
By Professor Bill Griffith, Department of Chemistry
A personal tribute by emeritus professor Mino Green
Geoffrey Wilkinson died in harness, much honoured, respected and loved. He was contributing to chemistry at the highest level up to the last, with no hint of a let-up.
I guess he was lucky in the manner of his going: no sign of mental decay, no debilitating physical illness, just bang, gone! But I have an acute feeling of misery at his death. There will be no more comfortable natters with my friend of so many years.
In a way I knew Geoff before I met him; he was a legend in our radiochemistry research group, being an ex-colleague of our band of research supervisors. Mind you we always chuckled about the high proportion of 1 Mev gammas amongst the sixty odd radio nuclides that he discovered. But when I, a callow Post Doc., arrived (with my bride) at MIT, Geoff was the first to come over to make contact and to offer his help. That was October 1951; he was at Harvard and doing the work that would be cited in the award of his Nobel Prize. But at that moment he was, uncharacteristically, more concerned with his new Dodge than with chemistry. Since then our paths have bumped together here and there, as happens with friends.
He cared very deeply indeed for the Department of Chemistry and the College, in that order. He fought wherever and with whomever he could for the cause of good chemistry at IC. Indeed, he has been known to monopolise the discussion at a dinner party, inveighing against those unfortunate enough not to recognise chemistry as the central science and unable to understand the paramount need for the provision of funds for preparative chemistry. I recall vividly one dinner where a lady barrister asked Geoff "what did you get your Nobel Prize for," whereupon he told her, ferrocenes and all.
The person Geoffrey Wilkinson, was at the lower end of medium height, medium build, with a Yorkshire accent modified by time, but with strong echoes of Freddie Truman. He had a totally boyish grin, which was a mirror of his Puckish humour. And that went along with his unpretentiousness and his dislike of self-righteous, self-important, behaviour.
I, along with others, will miss him terribly. For scientists, perhaps the only palliative is for those who can do chemistry to continue doing so, but what can one say to those unfortunates who cannot ?
Mino Green is a senior research fellow in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
(c) Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, 1996
Last Revised: 8 October 1996