1941 - 2019
Brian Halton's chemical journey began at the University of Southampton, UK, from where he graduated with a BSc(Hons) in 1963 and a PhD in 1966, with studies for the latter being under Richard Cookson's guidance. He then moved to Florida as a postdoctoral fellow with Merle Battiste, before being engaged as an assistant professor.
In the latter role, Brian found it necessary to feign/acquire an American accent when the students in his first lecture complained they couldn't understand his (British) accent, the latter he rapidly regained when he left for New Zealand. The move to Wellington in 1968 ended up being a permanent one, starting with a lectureship at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) and evolving through the promotion levels to appointment as professor in 1991. His later years were illustrative of his sheer determination, as he suffered multiple heart failures between 1983 and 2018, yet continued with his research, teaching and writing as well as enjoying life through those years.
A major focus of Professor Halton's research was the chemistry of cycloproparenes - pungent smelling, strained organic molecules containing a cyclopropane ring fused to various aromatic rings. He published over 120 peer-reviewed original research articles on this subject, thus contributing in the most incisive and fundamental of ways to knowledge in this field. The regard in which Brian was held can be seen in his decade-long editorship of the book series Advances in Strain in Organic Chemistry.
Brian supervised 11 PhD students and 36 Honours/Masters students as well as several postdoctoral and other research employees. His strong research ethos and enquiring mind have helped to enable these people to achieve greatly on the NZ and international science scenes. With Jim Coxon (Canterbury), Brian co-wrote the 1974 textbook Organic Photochemistry, which was so successful it enjoyed an expanded second edition (published in 1987) and is still found on researchers' bookshelves the world over.
Brian taught many generations of chemists at VUW, who delighted in his lucid expositions, interesting anecdotes and exacting standards. The rigours of second year organic chemistry were dealt with thoroughly, third year was conformational analysis and mechanism, and in fourth year we were thrilled by the amazing advances in supramolecular chemistry, a topic of intense fascination to Brian.
New Zealand chemistry has Brian Halton, among others, to thank for our involvement in the huge Pacifichem conferences that are held every five years in Hawaii. Brian's friendships, networks and persistent efforts, including as the New Zealand representative to Pacifichem for over a decade, ensured this congress remains a key event on the New Zealand chemistry conference calendar and Pacifichem profits continue to provide a valuable income stream to the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (NZIC).
Brian Halton contributed enormously to the NZIC in many additional ways. He was the President during 1986-7, and the Editor of Chemistry in New Zealand for a decade (2001-2011), and then the Consulting Editor until 2018. More locally, Brian was the Wellington Branch Editor for over 15 years and on the local committee for over a decade. Through his retirement, Brian continued to write for Chemistry in New Zealand, with a Dates of Note column that ran for several years, his Unremembered Chemists series (2013-2018), and a piece to mark the International Year of the Periodic Table in the first 2019 issue of Chemistry in New Zealand. He regularly contributed his own writings and annually a piece on winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Brian's links with the international chemistry community are evident from the myriad of influential and important chemists who visited New Zealand during Brian's tenure, many of whom came to Wellington primarily because of their regard for him. Notable visits that immediately spring to the mind of this writer were Nobel Laureate Bob Grubbs, who visited the same day as the announcement of his Nobel Prize in 2005, and IUPAC President Leiv Sydnes in 2005 (plus several other visits outside of his presidency).
The Halton retirement symposium in 2005 also saw international chemists travel to Wellington to celebrate with Brian, including Jun Nishimura and Yoshito Tobe from Japan as well as Martin Banwell, David Officer and Andrew Grimsdale from Australia. In addition, senior New Zealand organic chemists Jim Coxon, Rob Smith and Margaret Brimble joined former students and colleagues in attending this symposium. Much of Brian's delight in these visits, as well as the joys of again meeting his collaborators and friends, was in the inspiration they brought to the young chemists (especially students) in the audience and post-VUW opportunities they highlighted.
Brian also travelled widely, with sabbaticals in Reading (UK, 1974-5, including visits to Germany), Utah (USA, 1981-2), USA and Germany (1988), Japan and Germany (1993), Australia (1999), Norway (2002) and international conferences worldwide.
Throughout his retirement, Brian attended VUW most days and during these times he wrote articles and books, supported postgraduate students by proof-reading theses and presentations, and occasionally also contributed to teaching when staff were absent.
When not at work, he was an avid bowler at the local club and resumed photography, which had been a hobby during his youth. Some of his stunning photos were featured on the slide show after his funeral and at other recent events. Brian also wrote several books. His accounts of his life and the history of chemistry at VUW, From Coronation Street to a Consummate Chemist and Chemistry at Victoria: the Wellington University are both highly informative, written with his astute sense of humour. He also published an ebook on his encounters with heart disease, intended as a resource for others with similar conditions, entitled A Cat of Nine Lives - and the Beat Goes On: Living with heart disease.
Brian's contributions to chemistry through his research, teaching, writing and service have been recognised through numerous awards and fellowships. He was made an Honorary Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry (2005) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand (1992).
Amongst other accolades, Brian was awarded the ICI Medal for Excellence in Chemical Research (1980), a Fulbright Award (1981), the New Zealand Association of Scientists' Shorland Medal (2001), and gave the 2003 NZIC Wellington Branch Mellor Lecture. The NZIC has instituted the triennial Wellington Branch Halton Lecture, for which the first two lecturers were Martin Banwell (ANU, 2014) and David Officer (Wollongong, 2017). On Friday 21 September 2018, the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences at VUW held a celebration marking 50 years (to the day) since Brian arrived in Wellington to begin working at the university. Many Wellington-based scientists, former students and colleagues attended this very special event.
Brian Halton passed away on Saturday 23 February 2019 after several months of ailing health. He is survived by his wife, Margaret, also a chemist, and sons Mark and Paul, and their families. The New Zealand and international chemical communities have lost a brilliant, highly respected scientist, colleague, mentor and friend to many.
Adapted from the obituary published in Chemistry in New Zealand, April 2019, by Joanne Harvey, Victoria University of Wellington
Revised August 2019 by Joanne Harvey and Rebecca Hurrell