Standards were exceptionally high at Kingswood at that time, as evidenced by the gaining of 14 Open Scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge in 1953. Although he was not very happy there, he benefitted from some good teaching and gained the Taylor Prize for being the best scientist.
In December 1958 he was awarded an Open Exhibition at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied Chemistry under college tutors L.E. Sutton and L.M. Venanzi from 1959-1962. He completed his Part II under the supervision of R.J.P. Williams (graduating in 1963), with whom he continued to work for his D.Phil. (1965), on studies of charge-transfer complexes. The D.Phil. research was multi-disciplinary and included active collaborations on crystallography, electron spin resonance (with the Clarendon Laboratory), and microprobe X-ray fluorescence analysis (with the Research Department for Archaeology and History of Art), as well as spectroscopy and studies of semi- and photo-conductivity of organic solids.
At this time, electronics and computing were not well developed, and the idea that organic materials might have interesting electrical conductivity properties was still very new, partly because the sensitive electronic instruments needed to measure the very small electrical currents had only recently been developed as part of the second world-war effort. Similarly, electronic detectors for X-rays were not generally available, and X-ray crystallography involved taking multiple photographs of the diffraction patterns from crystals using packs of five stacked films.
The blackness of the spots on the films was measured with the aid of a calibrated comparison strip of about 15 spots of known relative blackness, using the attenuation in successive films in each pack to measure the full range of observed blacknesses for several thousand spots. The resulting data were then typed onto punched paper tape and fed into the Ferranti Mercury, and later the English Electric KDF9, computer. These were very large and slow machines employing valves rather than solid-state electronics, and the user usually slept on a camp bed beside the machine for several hours while it performed calculations that would now take a few seconds!
Finally, the punched paper tape output was fed into a teleprinter, contours were drawn on the resulting grid of numbers, and a model of the crystal structure constructed using a cork bath mat and welding rods together with small pieces of plastic electrical insulation sleeving. John later recalled that the excitement of being the first person in the world to see this resulting assembly compensated for the many hours of tedious work involved.
John’s time at Oxford was followed by postdoctoral work with E.B. Fleischer at the University of Chicago on crystallography and porphyrin chemistry. In the laboratory John made use of one of the early X-ray diffractometers in which films were replace by the electronic detection of diffraction intensities, and he determined two further crystal structures. Outside the laboratory he worked as a volunteer with civil rights groups touring poor areas of South Chicago to collect details of people who could not obtain appropriate benefits from the city. When some hundred such cases were presented together, the chances of achieving satisfactory resolution were increased.
At this time, for entry to the US, there was a choice between exchange visas (for two years only) or immigrant visas, which permitted open stays. In common with many UK scientists at that time, John chose an immigrant visa, but subsequently the requirement to register with the US selective system for potential military service proved to be disastrous for his academic intentions.
The Vietnam war was intensifying, and since Chicago was short of suitable young single recruits John's request for reclassification from the initial 1A was rejected. Consequently, after one year he received an order to report for a medical examination in the local recruiting office. Within two weeks he had cancelled the renewal of his postdoctoral contract, loaded all his belongings into his Mini Cooper S and driven hastily over the bridge in Detroit into Canada, returning to the UK by sea in September 1965. Fortunately, Keith Prout and ‘Tiny’ Powell arranged a postdoctoral position for John in the Chemical Crystallography laboratory in Oxford, subsequently supported by a personal SERC fellowship.
In 1966 several new universities were recruiting staff, and he was successful in obtaining an Assistant Lectureship in Chemistry at the University of Kent at Canterbury commencing in 1967. The invitation for interview arrived during his honeymoon following his first marriage, to Sigrid Hannelore Seyffert, in Germany (conducted by his father), but a hasty phone call on return resulted in a delayed, but nevertheless successful, interview. The construction of the Chemical Laboratory at Kent had just been completed, and the first Chemistry Finals were held in 1968. John remained at Kent until his retirement in 2004, successively as Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and finally Reader in Materials Chemistry.
At Kent, as well as performing the normal teaching and administrative duties associated with an academic appointment, John led a highly successful and innovative materials chemistry and chemical sensors research group for 36 years. Having first established X-ray crystallography equipment, his research interests rapidly turned to chemical sensors, with the realisation that the electrical conductivity of organic solids was potentially very sensitive to the presence of certain gases.
Other techniques explored included interferometry, surface plasmon resonance, and piezo-optical methods. Subsequently, John developed an interest in a totally different class of materials, sol-gels, in his quest for novel optical chemical sensor materials, and his work led to significant developments in sensors for flammable gases, atmospheric pollutants, hospital sterilising agents and water pollutants, and several of these were the subject of patent applications.
His research led to a range of collaborations with numerous government and industrial laboratories), as well as securing funding from the Royal Society, the British Council and the European Union. International collaborators included scientists at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow (P. Nikitin), University of Nijmegen, Holland (R. Nolte), University of Tübingen, Germany (W. Göpel), Université du Littoral, Dunkirk (acting as the coordinator of an EU Interreg project) and workers in Opole, Poland and Jena, Germany.
Of special note were his links with Professor H. Kuroda's laboratory at the University of Tokyo, where he spent nine months in 1975, with subsequent visits on four further occasions. Kuroda and H. Inokuchi, with their supervisor H. Akamatu, were the pioneers of organic semi-conductivity work, and the experience of working with this group marked the start of John’s growing interest in these organic solids which now play a very important role in many areas, including displays, electronics, optical devices and sensors.
The Japanese workers in this area held regular meetings, and after one of these visits John met with other UK scientists in the field, who decided to establish the UK Molecular Crystals Discussion Group of which he was a founder member and Secretary from 1985-1996. Later he established the UK/Ireland Sol-Gel Discussion Group in 1996. Materials Chemistry was a growing field, and John was a founder member of the Editorial Board of the RSC Journal of Materials Chemistry (1990-96), and a member (1993-95) of the RSC Materials Forum (subsequently to become the Materials Chemistry Division).
In total John’s research led to the publication of over 160 peer-reviewed papers, reviews and conference presentations. He also wrote two textbooks. The first, Molecular Crystals, [Molecular Crystals, J.D. Wright, Cambridge University Press, 1987 (Japanese language edition, Kagaku Dojin, 1991); second edition, 1994, pp. 221 + xiv] was based on an advanced undergraduate/postgraduate course he gave for many years, and sold in excess of 4000 and 1500 copies of the English and Japanese language editions, respectively. The second, Sol-Gel Materials: Chemistry and Applications, was co-authored with his Dutch collaborator N.A.J.M. Sommerdijk, of the Eindhoven University of Technology [Sol-Gel Materials: Chemistry and Applications, J.D. Wright and N.A.J.M. Sommerdijk, Gordon and Breach: Amsterdam, 2001, pp. 125 + x.]
John's first marriage failed in 1987, leaving him with sole responsibility for the home and two teenage sons, Robin and Peter, in addition to his university work. In 1997 he married Jill Beckett and, quite by chance, family history research showed that their respective grandfathers were cousins; this opened the door to many discoveries about their common Lincolnshire background.
Following his retirement, John served as a local representative of the Royal Society of Chemistry Benevolent Fund, visiting retired chemists regularly. Initially Jill and John moved to a location at St Margaret's Bay near Dover, and then in 2006 they set up home in Lincoln where they were able to explore their common family history with the help of the Lincolnshire Archives. Subsequently they ‘down-sized’ and re-located again, to Chichester, West Sussex, in 2014. Sadly, early in 2019 John was diagnosed with terminal Oesophageal and Pancreatic cancers, nevertheless he remained alert, positive and cheerful during the difficult decline of his health and he died at home a year later.