3 December 1921 - 29 January 2008
Alan Sharpe was born on 3 December 1921. He attended the City School, Lincoln, where the headmaster, a Cambridge graduate, encouraged him to apply to Trinity. Though unsuccessful there, he was offered and accepted an exhibition at Jesus to read Natural Sciences; he also received a state studentship. Arriving here in wartime, he was allowed two years’ residence, under the supervision of W. H. Mills, before being sent by the Joint Recruiting Board to work on explosives in the Chemical Inspection Department. (Alan seems to have believed that this was an arbitrary choice by the JRB, but a document survives in his file to show that W. H. Thorpe, on behalf of the college, recommended that he should be employed as a chemist.) At the end of the war, he turned down a permanent job in the Scientific Civil Service; an unscheduled visit to the Ministry of Labour secured his release in time for him to return to Cambridge in the middle of the Michaelmas Term of 1945. Completing his degree in the following June, he was taken on by Professor Harry Julius Emeléus as a research student, working on the extraction of uranium from ores. The initiative he showed in this led, in 1948, to his appointment as Jesus College’s first ever research fellow. He also taught for the college and was soon appointed a University Demonstrator, with effect from October 1949; at that point he ceased to be a research fellow and was given instead a fellowship of class IV, transmuted into a fellowship of class V from June 1950 (class II from 1955). He was awarded his Ph.D. in 1949 and appointed Assistant Lecturer in Chemistry in June 1951, University Lecturer in 1954; he was to hold this lectureship for nearly thirty years, retiring from it in 1982.
His lectures were marked by his determination to set descriptive chemistry in a framework of quantitative experimental measurements and rational explanations; colleagues (Drs Martin Mays and David Johnson) have paid tribute to them, and to his teaching as a supervisor, as “a model of clarity”, displaying “a critical, analytical intelligence” and “a bewitching combination of realism with wit”. In research, he began to build up a reputation as a fluorine chemist, mainly through work on the dangerous substance bromine trifluoride (used as an ionizing solvent in the preparation of complex fluorides); in 1951 he published his first book: Fluorine and its Compounds. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1955. While he wrote relatively few research papers, he was closely involved, for half a century, in the composition of essential textbooks, which played a major role in the renaissance of inorganic chemistry from the 1950s onwards. He was co-editor, with Emeléus, of later editions of Modern Aspects of Inorganic Chemistry (from the fourth edition of 1973) and eventually produced his own textbook, Inorganic Chemistry (1981). The latter appeared in three initial editions; an updated version, co-written with Catherine Housecroft, reached its third edition in late 2007. Alan also served for many years as co-editor of two influential series of chemical reviews: Advances in Inorganic and Radiochemistry (1959-) and Advances in Fluorine Chemistry (1960-). He became a respected advisor of research students, acted as an external examiner for several unversities, and was Chairman of the Faculty of Physics and Chemistry from 1970 to ’75. Cambridge University awarded him an honorary doctorate of science in 1968.
At the same time, Alan held a series of college offices: in the early 1950s he was Junior Bursar, Director of Studies in Natural Sciences, and briefly Librarian (of the War Memorial Library). He began his tutorial career as an Assistant Tutor, from 1953, and Tutor from 1957 to 1963; there followed a year’s leave of absence, in which he enjoyed a National Science Foundation Visiting Professorship in the USA. After his return, he was Senior Tutor and Admissions Tutor from 1964 to 1970; later he became Senior Tutor again, for the year 1984-85. His notable achievements in those posts and other contributions to college life are detailed in Peter Glazebrook’s address so do not need rehearsing here.
From 1975, Alan was involved with plannning for the projected Robinson College; from its launch in 1977 he was a linch-pin as its first Senior Tutor. He held that post for five years, playing a vital role in the institution’s launch and early progress. He retained his fellowship at Jesus (of class III under the new statutes of 1976) for two further years, resigning in 1979. He was an Emeritus Fellow of Jesus for the years 1982-84 and from 1985 until his death. He was also and Honorary Fellow of Robinson College from 1985. Some of his reminiscences of his earliest years at Jesus are recorded in the recently published college book, Jesus: the life of a Cambridge college (2007).
In 1950 he married Christine Hall; they were divorced in 1974. They had three sons and a daughter, and numerous grandchildren.
A memorial service was held in Jesus College Chapel on Saturday, 31 May 2008, with addresses given by Lord Lewis (the first Master of Robinson College) and Peter Glazebrook (speaking for Jesus College).