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John Meurig Thomas

  Sir John Meurig Thomas FRS (born December 15, 1932), is a leading British chemist and educator primarily known for his work on heterogeneous catalysis, solid-state chemistry, and surface and materials science. He has authored over one thousand scientific articles and several books, including Principles and Practice of Heterogeneous Catalysis (with W. John Thomas) and Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution: The Genius of Man and Place. He is the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees. In 1991 he was knighted “for services to chemistry and the popularisation of science”. The mineral meurigite is named after him. Much of his research has involved creating new solid catalysts and trying to understand the structure and activity of existing ones using techniques such as X-ray absorption, NMR spectroscopy, and high resolution transmission electron microscopy. He is one of the most cited authors in the field of heterogeneous catalysis. In recent years he has focused on designing “green” catalysts for clean technology and on developing ways of studying catalysts in situ.

Sir John was born and brought up near the Welsh mining town of Llanelli, South Wales where his father and brother were miners. His interest in science was aroused when as a teenager he heard his physics teacher at Gwendraeth Grammar School talk about the life and work of Michael Faraday. Later in life, Sir John would become the Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, in London, a position first held by Faraday, who has remained one of his scientific heroes.

Sir John holds BSc (1954) and PhD (1958) degrees from the University of Wales, Swansea, although he completed the work for his PhD at Queen Mary College, University of London, where his advisor had moved. After a year's work for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority as scientific officer he joined the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wales, Bangor where he rose through the ranks from Assistant Lecturer, to Lecturer, and then to Reader. In 1959 he married Margaret Edwards with whom he later had two daughters, Lisa and Naomi. While at Bangor, he demonstrated the profound influence that dislocations and other structural imperfections exert upon the chemical, electronic, and surface properties of solids. In 1969 he became Professor and Head of Chemistry at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he broadened his interests in solid-state, surface and materials chemistry and pioneered the application of electron microscopy in chemistry. In 1977 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

From 1978 to 1986 Sir John was at the University of Cambridge as Head of the Department of Physical Chemistry and Professorial Fellow at King’s College. There he continued developing new techniques in solid-state and materials science, and designing and synthesizing new catalysts. For example, he extended his earlier electron microscopic and surface studies of minerals and intercalates to encompass the synthesis and structural determination of zeolitic materials by a combination of solid-state NMR, neutron scattering, and real-space imaging.

In 1986 he was invited to succeed Sir George Porter as Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, occupying with his family the same living quarters that Michael Faraday and his wife had occupied at the Royal Institution’s building on Albemarle Street. At this time, he began using synchrotron radiation and devised techniques which combine X-ray spectroscopy and high-resolution X-ray diffraction to determine the atomic structure of the active sites of solid catalysts under operating conditions. He also devised new mesoporous, microporous, and molecular sieve catalysts. In 1987 the BBC televised his Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on crystals, continuing the tradition of lectures for children started by Faraday in 1826. He resigned as Director in 1991 owing to his wife’s health, but he remains associated with the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory of the Royal Institution. In 1991 he published the book Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution: The Genius of Man and Place, which has since been translated into Japanese (1997) and Italian (2007).

After a period as Deputy Pro-Chancellor of the University of Wales (1991-1994), he returned to Cambridge in 1993 as Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge’s oldest college, and as Honorary Distinguished Research Associate in the Department of Material Science, both of which posts he held until 2002, the year his wife died. During his tenure as Master of Peterhouse, Lady Thomas oversaw the magnificent renovation of the Master’s Lodge, a 1702 mansion on Trumpington Street. In 1997 he co-authored with W. John Thomas (no relation) the text Principles and Practice of Heterogeneous Catalysis. In 1999 he was elected Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering for work that “has profoundly added to the science-base of heterogeneous catalysis leading to the commercial exploitation of zeolites through engineering processes”.

He is the author of twenty-five patents, some of which have made chemical processes more environmentally benign (“greener”) by eliminating the use of solvents and reducing the number of manufacturing steps involved. The single-step, solvent-free catalytic synthesis of ethyl acetate that he invented is the basis of a 200,000 ton/year plant in the UK, the largest of its kind in the world. He has recently devised a single-step, solvent-free process for the production of caprolactam, the raw material for nylon-6 (J.M. Thomas and R. Raja, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102(39), 13732–13736, 2005).

Since 2002 he has been Honorary Professor of Materials Science at the University of Cambridge and Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory of the Royal Institution. He also holds an Honorary Distinguished Professorship of Materials Chemistry at Cardiff University, a Distinguished Visiting Professorship of Nanoscience at the University of South Carolina, and an Honorary Distinguished Professorship of Materials Chemistry at the University of Southampton.

He is the recipient of nineteen honorary degrees from Australian, British, Canadian, Dutch, Egyptian, French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and U.S. universities, and has been elected to honorary membership in over fifteen foreign academies, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His recent awards include the Sir George Stokes Gold Medal from the Royal Society of Chemistry (2005), the Guilio Natta Gold Medal from the Italian Chemical Society (2004), the Linus Pauling Gold Medal from Stanford University (2003), and the American Chemical Society Award for Creative Research in Heterogeneous and Homogeneous Catalysis (1999). In 1995 he became the first British scientist in 80 years to be awarded the Willard Gibbs Gold Medal by the American Chemical Society. In recognition of his contributions to geochemistry, a new mineral, meurigite, was named after him in 1995 by the International Mineralogical Association.

The recreations he lists in Who's Who include ancient civilisations and Welsh literature. In 2003, he was the first scientist to be awarded the Medal of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (London) for services to Welsh culture and British public life.

Selected bibliography

  • "Introduction to the Principles of Heterogeneous Catalysis”, 1967, Academic Press. (With W.J. Thomas).
  • "Principles and Practice of Heterogeneous Catalysis”, 1997, Wiley. (With W.J. Thomas).
  • "Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution: The Genius of Man and Place", 1991, Institute of Physics Publishing.
  • "Selections and Reflections: The Legacy of Sir Lawrence Bragg", 1990, Science Reviews. (With Lord David Phillips, editors).
  • Prof. Thomas's page at the University of Cambridge, including a publication list and curriculum vitae.
  • Fullerian Professorships
Preceded by
Sir George Porter
Director of the Royal Institution
Succeeded by
Peter Day
Preceded by
The Very Rev'd Henry Chadwick
Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Lord Wilson of Tillyorn
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "John_Meurig_Thomas". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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