Remembering Evelyn Ebsworth and academics in industry

Evelyn Ebsworth (1933–2015)

In the 1960s, the renaissance of inorganic chemistry prompted universities old and new to form inorganic sections. Evelyn Ebsworth, who died on 16 July, established inorganic chemistry at the University of Edinburgh; it continues to flourish to this day.

Evelyn studied at the University of Cambridge, completing his PhD on Si–N compounds with Harry Emeléus and Alfie Maddock. I first met him there when he lectured on main-group chemistry, but he was replaced halfway through the course – a jar of a chromium peroxide had exploded, costing him a joint of each finger and the thumb of his left hand. As he delighted in saying, he had had a hand in chromium chemistry. His sense of humour was legendary; playing with words and making oblique references to literature or history. Some colleagues took this light-heartedness to imply that he was a lightweight. A serious mistake.

Evelyn left Cambridge in 1967 to take up Edinburgh’s new Crum Brown chair of chemistry. The inorganic section was created from five existing staff, and Evelyn added Stephen Cradock, who also died earlier this year. By the time I arrived in 1969, he had appointed Tony Stephenson, and I joined the teaching staff two years later.

Evelyn’s lasting contribution to science is the way he brought together spectroscopic and structural techniques. He studied the simplest possible compounds – so silyl, SiH3, groups were preferred for silicon chemistry. But these compounds are not simple to handle, being volatile and often violently reactive. So he used gas-phase vibrational spectroscopy, electron diffraction, low-temperature crystallography, photo-electron spectroscopy, and above all multi-nuclear NMR with double resonance (a single-frequency source modulated with Radio 1 for noise decoupling!).

At that time, the department was run by three young professors. They were the chiefs of their tribes, and fought over every resource. But to the outside world, particularly the faculty, they presented a united front. Maybe not an ideal system, but it worked (‘up to a point, Lord Copper’, as Evelyn would have said). Chemistry flourished, and in due course he became dean of the faculty. His skill and reputation as an administrator grew, and in 1990 he became vice-chancellor and warden of Durham University. He was a caring, generous, thoughtful leader, and these characteristics form part of his legacy, followed by his successors. 

Evelyn was also an expert in history and literature, and loved opera. He had a deep Christian faith, expressed particularly in Anglican choral worship. In retirement, he chaired the governors of two schools, and travelled the world bird-watching. Above all, he cared for his family. His first wife, Mary, died while Evelyn was still in Edinburgh, and he was then married to Rose for nearly 25 years. Together they had nine children, 18 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He will be missed by all those who knew him in so many different ways.

David Rankin FRSC FRSE
University of Edinburgh, UK

The business case

In his article ‘Down to business’, Mark Peplow makes some comments about the attitude of academia towards industry and the way it works: showing a profit is not always seen to be as important as it is. 

This is in accord with my experience, particularly with new graduates straight from a full time course, with no industrial experience. They often have little or no idea of the difference between what can be done in an academic setting and what can be done on an industrial scale. 

One typical incident sticks in my mind. A recent graduate who was a very good chemist, came up with a process that required heating a batch of material to 260°C in 20 minutes – something he thought could be done easily in the laboratory. He was stunned when I told him that a normal production batch would be several tons, and would take three or four hours to heat to that temperature. 

In my experience it usually takes graduates with no industrial experience something like a year to re-orientate their thinking.

Michael Harris MRSC
Brentwood, UK

Taking work home

Regarding Michael Baldwin’s letter, I am well aware that in many professions people bring their work home and end up creating ‘private museums’. 

For example, I have a collection of uranium-containing glass in my basement, obtained by patrolling second hand shops in Sweden with a UV torch. My collection poses no special chemical or radiological threat – it could be retained, recycled, landfilled or even sold on eBay when I am no longer able or willing to keep it. 

However, disposing of a private collection of hazardous chemicals or exotic pesticides from yesteryear might prove difficult to do legally and cheaply. 

I know that a lot of us enjoy chemistry (and chemicals), but before we take something home I would suggest that we think about the following four questions: Do I really need it at home? Is it safe to store at home? Is it an object with a large negative value (one that costs money to dispose of legally)? Is it legal to keep this item at home?

Mark St J Foreman MRSC
Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden

Rudge remembered

I was delighted to read that Derek Palmer of Woking came to chemistry partly from reading a little book by the former head of science at my old college, E A Rudge. 

One of my school chums was a fellow student there. We were sitting together in 1945 during a lecture by Rudge and my friend Raymund O’Sullivan, who later became a chemist, ostentatiously held a copy of Simple Home Chemistry for Boys. However, Rudge decided not to rise to the jape and his lecture went on as planned.

Some years ago, he wrote an article for Chemistry in Britain on his wartime work on poison gases while a serving soldier during the first world war. I took the opportunity to exchange letters with my former mentor. Thanks for the memory, Derek.

John Steggles FRSC
Bury St Edmunds, UK