Crippled by polio as a young boy, Peter not only went on to have a fulfilling career in chemistry but also returned his services to inner-city groups, for which he was awarded an MBE.
I contracted osteo-myelitis in 1938 when I was 9 years old. Before the advent of antibiotics the only treatment was major orthopaedic surgery, and I had operations on the femur and tibia of my right leg, my pelvis and some on my arms. All this left me with my right hip fixed at about 30 degrees and the right leg about 6cm shorter than my left.
I was inspired to study chemistry after my first term at school in 1943, aged 13. After just over four years in hospital I was over two years behind the other boys, but the chemistry was exciting. We did lots of practical work and every time we mixed things together something interesting happened: a gas was given off, colours changed, precipitates appeared, and living in London at the time I was well aware of the power of explosives! I wanted to know why these things happened and enjoyed reading the text books to pick up the theories and underlying science.
Before I started the school had suffered a direct bomb hit in the middle of its buildings which destroyed several classrooms but left the relatively modern science block still usable. In 1945 I took my turn on “doodlebug” duty on the roof during the flying bomb attacks. We watched them coming over, and if any reasonably near ones cut their engine (which meant they were about to hit the ground), pressed an alarm bell at which all below were supposed to get under their desks. I also remember taking exam papers in an air raid shelter during an air raid!
I enjoyed doing practical work at university as much as at school, but due to my disability I found several hours standing at the bench and the old bench seats in the lecture theatres painful. The 7-hour practical forming part of the Royal Scholarship examination was a real shock to the system! It was also difficult to reach for materials in low cupboards or high shelves unaided, and I had to rely on others to get things for me.
Following an attempt at a PhD in X-ray crystallography at Imperial College, London, in 1953 I joined the phosphorus chemicals firm Albright and Wilson to work on the synthesis of polymers of phosphonitrilic chloride. This was also not very successful and the polymers had unpleasant health effects, so in 1956 I joined the old Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) Metals division in the corrosion laboratory. Here I specialised in investigating and advising on problems caused by the corrosion of copper and aluminium and their alloys in service and became something of an amateur metallurgist.
Career in industry
In the late 1950s ICI Metals contracted to produce on the industrial scale zirconium alloys and hafnium for use in water and gas-cooled nuclear reactors and I was asked to test their corrosion resistance to simulated reactor conditions. The first batches of the zirconium alloys, intended for naval submarines and one design of gas cooled reactor. had to be rejected as they failed to meet the given corrosion specifications, causing great concern to the Rear Admiral Submarines and the reactor constructors. The subsequent major investigation involved close contact with our own metallurgists and the reactor designers and constructors in both the USA and UK. Causes and solutions were found, but I learnt three lessons: the fundamental importance of chemistry to modern technology, the need for graduate staff to learn the basics of other disciplines, and the need for well-equipped, multidisciplinary laboratories to support new technology.
I loved the variety of the job, and getting involved with so many different industries. Seeing chemical and engineering technology being used, by and large, for human benefit was very stimulating, as was being able to offer solutions to serious problems. At this time I also taught a course on corrosion for the Fellowship of the Institute of Metals examination at the (then) Aston Polytechnic: 6-9 on a Friday night and I had approximately 20 students each year. This was dedication on their part!
From 1964–68 I worked on the development of solid propellant rocket motors for guided missiles which introduced me to the manufacture and properties of many other materials: steels, rubbers, plastics, glass-reinforced plastic, graphite, (including very early work on carbon fibre), and epoxy adhesives.
In 1968, due to a slack period in missile development, I moved to ICI Fibres initially working in Research Administration but subsequently as a trouble shooter in the factories. I had a particular interest in low friction, wear resistant ceramic surfaces.
Finally, with the collapse of the British textile industry, I was made redundant in 1983 and I took a position in the voluntary sector advising inner-city groups on management, for which I was later awarded an MBE. The change was a major cultural shock: no secretaries, a tiny cubicle to work in, and a draughty converted Victorian building originally designed as a library/police station/fire station which was bitterly cold in winter. It was a new and experimental post and I had to create it myself. My first client was a charity which was pretty chaotic, and after that it all took off – I think at one period I was working with 13 different groups at the same time. It was a fascinating and generally enjoyable experience. Although a major change from applied chemistry, the fundamental skills of observation, analysis and logical thinking together with clear, concise speaking and writing were certainly transferable and invaluable.
In my opinion chemistry is the study of natural materials and how they are, or can be, converted into substances of much greater use and benefit. As such it underlies all human activity and offers the only means we have of providing a reasonable life for the increasing population of the planet. A chemist learns to manipulate materials carefully, be aware of dangers, approach unknowns cautiously, think logically and to know the limits and accuracy of any conclusions drawn from their work. It’s an exciting and intellectually satisfying career that is essential to society’s wellbeing.
Certainly in the UK provision for disabled people has improved enormously since I came out of hospital in 1942, but I still find unexpected barriers to access, particularly to wheel chairs, and instances where special provision is unusable (such as disabled toilets full of stores, alarm cords tied up to the ceiling, switches out of reach). I think this is attributable to not having a disabled person on the spot when a facility is installed, but I do believe almost everyone’s disability is unique.
The important thing is for management to be willing to discuss with the disabled person how their reasonable needs can be met, and that is where I have seen the big change in society’s attitude. One practical step might be to do more to promote the everyday benefits chemistry brings to society and the ability of good, but not exceptional, individuals to contribute to a worthwhile activity. We are not all Nobel Prize winners, and I sometimes think we overawe outsiders and the young by the publicity given to brilliant research, giving them the impression that such success is the norm.
Interview by Stephen McCarthy
Images © Stephen Lake/Royal Society of Chemistry
Published August 2014