6 August 1936 - 1 September 2006
Colleagues, students and friends of Lyn Williams, a greatly loved member of the Department of Chemistry at Durham University which he joined in 1963, have been saddened to learn of his death from catastrophic injuries sustained in a fall in August. A tall, quietly spoken Welshman with a delightful wit, he was a pillar of strength not only to his department, which he headed from 1992-1995, but also to the university generally and his college (Hatfield) in particular. He was a man of unusually broad and varied talents, a superb teacher, scientist, musician, sportsman, raconteur, bridge player, gardener, one who lived life to the full, gregarious, easy to relate to, an inspiration to all he met.
Lyn was born in Ammanford (where both his parents were teachers) in South Wales, a region from which so many talented scientists have sprung. Throughout his life, he retained a fierce loyalty to the land of his birth and its culture, used its language whenever opportunity permitted (his daughter Elenid and son Aled were raised as bilingual), and showed the heightened feeling for English linguistic subtleties and sensitivities that Welsh speakers so often possess.
An undergraduate at University College, London, particularly influenced by physical organic chemists like C.K.Ingold, E.D.Hughes, P.B.D. de la Mare and C.A.Bunton, Lyn graduated with a first class honours chemistry degree in 1957 and opted to study organic reaction mechanisms as the theme not only for his PhD work but also his subsequent research career. His graduate and postdoctoral work at UCL from 1957-1961 focussed on the kinetics and mechanisms of addition reactions between hypohalous acids and alkenes and on acid-catalysed aromatic rearrangement reactions. At Swansea on an ICI Research Fellowship from 1961-1963, and later at Durham where he moved to a lectureship in 1963, he became progressively more interested in the study of the organic reactions of nitroso reagents NOX with organic molecules. This ultimately led to his becoming an internationally known authority on nitrosation and denitrosation reactions at carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur centres. At Durham, he found time not only for his own researches but also to write, with George Kohnstam, authoritative review articles on other areas, and to explore, with Dick Chambers, nucleophilic substitution reactions of polyfluoroaromatic compounds. Lyn was invited to lecture on his work at many international conferences, and actively supported the RSC Organic Reaction Mechanisms group as secretary and treasurer from 1980-1987. He wrote a book, "Nitrosation", that was well received on publication in 1988, and updated and expanded it later (2004) using the new title "Nitrosation Reactions and the chemistry of Nitric Oxide" .
The knowledge and insight Lyn had acquired on nitrosation reactions became both very widely useful and topical in the 1990s, when the importance of nitric oxide in life processes became recognized by the scientific community, notably the way nitric oxide mediates blood vessel relaxation, affects neurotransmission and is involved in pathogen suppression. Lyn contributed much to our understanding of the types of NO-transfer process involved, including the vital role played by minute traces of copper catalysts in nitric oxide release from S-nitrosothiols. He collaborated successfully in such work with Tony Butler of St Andrews University, and enjoyed telling of how he would travel north (and Tony south) to meet in a hostelry in Berwick-on-Tweed to put the finishing touches to joint papers on their work and suitably celebrate their completion. Lyn also enjoyed a lengthy and very fruitful collaboration with J.R.Leis and others at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, entailing exchanges of students, and resulting in Lyn's formal appointment as a friend of that university, an honour he greatly appreciated.
Rightly proud of his teaching parentage, Lyn himself was a born teacher and tactful committee-man, whether as member or chairman. He played a very full part in teaching and administration at Durham, for many years chairing the departmental examination committee with scrupulous fairness, providing wise counsel as director of undergraduate studies, and serving on many university committees. He was the type to find common ground if discussions occasionally became polarised. As a physical chemistry teacher, he conveyed rare insight into the more mathematical aspects of the subject. Generations of students appreciated his natural wit, Welsh lilt and occasional flamboyance (he was even known to sing to enliven lectures on thermodynamics, a field rarely top of the pops with students). He enjoyed interacting with people and gave generously of his time, whether individually or collectively, to both undergraduates and postgraduates, more than thirty of whom gained PhDs under his guidance. The quality of chemistry teaching was assessed nationally during his chairmanship of the department, and his calm unflustered approach ensured his staff did themselves justice, ensuring the "excellent" rating sought. Lyn also had a flair for introducing school students to the fascination of chemistry, delighting, astonishing and amusing his young audiences with his chemical conjuring tricks in lectures on colour chemistry.
Outside chemistry, Lyn's talents shone through in all he did. A keen and knowledgeable musician, for many years he sang, as a founder-member, in the nationally acclaimed Northern Sinfonia Chorus, and from his student days regularly played the organ at a number of churches (and occasionally cathedrals). A natural sportsman, he played rugby and cricket in his youth, taking up squash too, which he played into his sixties. His support of the Welsh Rugby XV and of Llanelli remained undaunted, and he was a valued member of the team manning the public address system at Durham County Cricket ground at Chester-le-Street. A keen gardener and allotment-holder, Lyn nurtured plants with the same concern he showed for his students, generously sharing his produce with his friends. He also found time to be a shrewd and convivial member of the bridge-playing community.
A good friend and excellent company, Lyn enriched the lives of all who knew him, and will be greatly missed. Our sympathies extend particularly to his family, to Gill, Lona, Elenid, Aled and Geinor in their loss, which so many share.
MRC and KW, on behalf of the Department of Chemistry, Durham University