College chemistry Nobel Laureates honoured with presentation of plaques

03 May 2007

Two alumni of Imperial College London are honoured today with Royal Society of Chemistry National Chemical Landmark plaques, presented to the College in recognition of the Nobel Prizes they won. 

Professor Sir Derek Barton FRS (1918 - 1998) and Professor Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson FRS (1921 - 1996) both started their scientific careers as undergraduate students at Imperial's chemistry department, and both returned to the College at later stages in their careers as professorial staff. The plaques presented to the College by the Royal Society of Chemistry mark the scientists' contributions to their field, and detail the work for which they received their Nobel prizes. They will be mounted outside the recently-refurbished entrance of Imperial's Department of Chemistry.   

The Chemical Landmark Plaques are being presented to Imperial's Rector, Sir Richard Sykes, by the President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Professor Jim Feast, at a special ceremony this evening. The presentation will be preceded by an overview of Professors Barton's and Wilkinson's work by Dr Hannah Gay, senior research investigator at Imperial's Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. In addition, Professor Willie Motherwell from UCL and Professor Malcolm Green from Oxford, personal friends of Derek Barton and Geoffrey Wilkinson respectively, will talk about the Nobel Laureates' important contribution to their areas of chemistry, and will share anecdotes about their colourful lives.  

Geoffrey Wilkinson won a royal scholarship to study chemistry at Imperial in 1939, completing a bachelor's degree and then a PhD on war research with phosgene gas. In 1943 he was recruited to the atomic bomb project in Canada, and when the war ended he sought a route out of atomic chemistry, taking an assistant professorship at Harvard, working on organo-metallic compounds. At Harvard in 1951 he and a colleague identified the structure of the organometallic 'sandwich' compound ferrocene, in which an iron atom lies between two parallel organic rings. It was for this work, which led to the development of catalytic converters for car exhausts, that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1973.  

Professor Wilkinson moved back to the UK in 1956 to take up the Chair of Inorganic Chemistry at Imperial. He was knighted in 1976 but remained a vocal critic of successive British prime ministers, education ministers and university vice-chancellors for not supporting science sufficiently.  

Derek Barton applied to Imperial in 1938 and studied a Bachelor's degree followed by a PhD in the chemistry department. His work whilst at the College included military intelligence research, during which time he developed invisible inks for intelligence personnel to use in the field. During the late 1940s he published a paper entitled 'the conformation of the steroid nucleus', which gave rise to a new branch of chemistry - conformation analysis. This new area redirected scientists' thinking on the behaviour of complex organic molecules and it was for his contribution to the development of this field that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969.  

Rather than face retirement in the UK at the age of 65, Professor Barton moved to Paris where he worked at CNRS, and then to the Texas A&M University, where he worked until the day of his death at the age of 80, in 1998. 

Professor Richard Templer, head of the Department of Chemistry at Imperial, said: "I'm delighted that the RSC have chosen to commemorate the significant contribution these two College alumni made to chemistry, with National Chemical Landmark plaques. Our department is very proud of the cutting edge work carried out by our staff in the past, as well as today, and these plaques are testament to the highest achievement of two of our former colleagues." 

Chemical Landmarks are the Royal Society of Chemistry's official recognition of historical sites around the UK where important chemical breakthroughs have been made. They are an RSC initiative to commemorate, emphasise and awaken public interest in historic developments in the chemical sciences. 

Sites that are awarded Chemical Landmark status have either played a major part in the development of chemical science or have seen a development of chemical science that has made a significant contribution to the health, wealth or quality of life of the nation.   

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