Professor Daniel Douglas Eley OBE FRS FRSC


(1 October 1914 - 3 September 2015)

Photo of Dan Eley

Professor Daniel Douglas Eley OBE FRS FRSC died on 3rd September 2015 less than a month short of what would have been his 101st birthday. Dan, as he was universally known, was an exceptionally productive physical chemist who worked on an amazing range of fundamental problems during his active research career and remained a passionate scientist right up to his death.

During his career, Dan's work pushed the boundaries of our understanding of chemistry across the whole discipline and into biology and physics. He and his students were the first to demonstrate that organic compounds can act as semi-conductors, a scientific breakthrough which eventually led to the colour displays on many of the latest smartphones. His work on DNA led to him showing for the first time that molecules of DNA could conduct electricity, a discovery that underpins a whole area of present day biophysical research. Another of his interests was the conversion of ortho and para hydrogen, an effect that is now exploited to enhance signal-to-noise in NMR spectroscopy.

Perhaps, more than anything, Dan's name is forever linked with that of his PhD supervisor, Eric Rideal, in the Eley-Rideal mechanism for hydrogenation on heterogeneous catalysts, a mechanism which has reached such a degree of acceptance that it is no longer thought necessary to cite the original paper! As a result, Dan had for many years been regarded as the "elder statesman" of the UK catalysis community.

Dan was born near Liverpool on 1st October, 1914, the son of Fanny and Daniel Eley. When his father was appointed by Sir Jesse Boot as the first advertising manager at Boots, the family moved to Nottingham and Dan spent his early years in the Nottingham suburb of West Bridgford. One of his earliest memories was of falling out of his high chair on hearing the noise of the huge explosion at the nearby Chilwell shell-filling factory, which killed hundreds of workers in July 1918. In 1922, Boots was sold to American owners, and the family moved to London.

Dan studied at Manchester University during the 1930s, obtaining a BSc in 1934, an MSc in 1935 and a PhD in 1937 with Hungarian-British polymath, Michael Polanyi. Dan then took a second PhD at Cambridge University, working with Rideal studying catalysts. He used to recount that one could not buy CO gas in those days so he made CO by the thermal decomposition of nickel carbonyl, glassblowing the ampoules of exceptionally toxic Ni(CO)4 to the vacuum line himself. He lectured at Cambridge and tutored, amongst others, Rosalind Franklin, whom he always maintained was totally different from Watson's unflattering portrait of her in the Double Helix.

During World War II, Dan carried out research on explosives problems for the Ministry of Supply and served in the Home Guard. His wartime experiences provided Dan with a store of anecdotes with which to regale students. After the war, he took up a lectureship in colloid chemistry at Bristol University. In 1951, he was promoted to Reader in Biophysical Chemistry, before his appointment in 1954 as the first Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. He was an enthusiastic if somewhat disorganised teacher, once lecturing for a whole hour to the wrong class who were too polite to point out his mistake. He was much loved by the undergraduates, one of whom years later set up a web page with some of his more amusing "bon mots".

In 1942, he married Brenda Williams, a doctor, and they enjoyed 50 years together, until her death in 1992. Dan is survived by his son Rod, a historian, who together with his wife Joy cared for Dan in his final years. Dan had many interests. He shared a love of music with Brenda and, to his death, his living room was dominated by a full-size grand piano.

Dan was fortunate to have many talented students who subsequently had distinguished careers in academia and industry. They include Martin Willis, and the late Hiroo Inokuchi, one of the first post-war Japanese students at Nottingham, who went on to win the 2007 Kyoto Prize in Material Science and Engineering for his work on organic semiconductors, that he developed from his time in Dan's laboratory.

At Nottingham, Dan continued his service to the community, playing an active role in Civil Defence and formulating possible responses to the effects of atomic warfare. According to Rod, Dan resigned when he realised that he would not be able to take Brenda and Rod with him into the nuclear bunker when the siren sounded. There is a story that Dan once fell asleep during an exercise to simulate a nuclear attack on Nottingham and was, therefore, unable to announce to the waiting Civil Defence workers where the "bomb" had exploded. They stood by all night waiting for the word but Dan slept on. Later, in 1967, Dan acted as a scientific advisor during the clean-up following the wreck of the Torrey Canyon, an oil-filled supertanker, on the Scilly Isles. In particular he advised on the use of surfactants as dispersants.

Dan was a great supporter of the Faraday Society and later the Faraday Division of the RSC, playing a leading role is many Faraday Discussions. He was appointed OBE for services to science in 1961. His pioneering work was recognised by his election to the Royal Society in 1964, the highest honour for a UK scientist. In 2014, the Royal Society honoured Dan with a special certificate marking the 50th anniversary of his election to the Fellowship.

For the past 20 years or so, the School of Chemistry at Nottingham has celebrated Dan's birthday with a party. Dan was a subscriber to the journal Nature from the age of 17. For his 90th birthday party, Nature rashly gave him a lifetime's free subscription in recognition of his devotion to the journal and Dan certainly got his money's worth. Each year, up to and including at his centenary celebrations, Dan made a speech. One year, he touchingly said "When I die, a whole generation of dead scientists will die forever, because there will be no one left who remembers them alive."

Apparently, Dan used to worry in private that he had spread himself too widely for his scientific achievements to be properly recognised. Happily, the talks at his centenary conference and a commemorative Blue Plaque from the RSC completely contradicted this view and finally blew his worries away.   As one of our eminent colleagues observed, "Dan had a wonderful innings . and took several important wickets during his distinguished career".

Jonathan D Hirst, Martyn Poliakoff, Peter J Sarre


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