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Professor Sir John Meurig Thomas FRS (1932 – 2020)

2 December 2020

Professor Sir John Meurig Thomas FRS
Professor Sir John Meurig Thomas FRS Image credit: Learned Society

We regret to announce the death of Professor Sir John Meurig Thomas FRS, who was Honorary Distinguished Professor in the School of Chemistry at Cardiff University since 2005.

Sir John Meurig Thomas was one of the most distinguished and influential scientists of his generation, and a pioneer in the fields of Solid-State Chemistry and Heterogeneous Catalysis. He made significant impact in the development of these fields of research, as well as forging a prominent role in the popularization of science, and inspiring many young scientists in their scientific careers.

Born the son of a coalminer in the Gwendraeth Valley in South Wales, John Meurig Thomas graduated with BSc and PhD degrees in Chemistry from the University College of Swansea. From 1958, he held academic positions in the University of Wales, initially as Lecturer at Bangor and then (from 1969) as Professor at Aberystwyth. In 1978, he was appointed as Professor and Head of the Department of Physical Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, before taking up the prestigious role of Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1986. Subsequently, he was appointed as Master of Peterhouse (the oldest College in Cambridge, and the first scientist to hold the appointment as Master), and later took up honorary appointments in the Department of Materials Science at the University of Cambridge and the School of Chemistry at Cardiff University.

Like all scientists of great achievement, Sir John's research evolved very successfully through different fields at different stages of his career. His research in Bangor and Aberystwyth in the 1960s and 1970s was focused on the characterization of defects in crystalline materials, facilitated through his pioneering applications of electron microscopy, leading to seminal discoveries on the role of defects in controlling reactivity in organic materials. At Cambridge, his research shifted towards the study of zeolites and other microporous solid materials, generating deep insights into the structural, physical and catalytic properties of these technologically important solids through the application of a powerful combination of experimental techniques. His focus on heterogeneous catalysis evolved further at the Royal Institution, especially by working with others to exploit the synergy of synchrotron-based techniques and state-of-the-art computational methods to establish rigorous fundamental understanding of the physico-chemical properties of catalytic materials. He played a leading role in developing and disseminating the concept of single-site heterogeneous catalysis, which has led to the design of new generations of solid catalysts that have enabled the development of sustainable and environmentally beneficial ("green") chemical processes.

Perhaps the pinnacle of Sir John's scientific career was his period as Director of the Royal Institution, following in the footsteps of his childhood scientific hero, Michael Faraday, who held the same appointment from 1825 to 1867. This pre-eminent position in UK science enabled Sir John to continue to advance the frontiers of research in a world-class laboratory (working together with Sir Richard Catlow FRS, who was Wolfson Professor of the Royal Institution at that time), while also fulfilling his dual passion of promoting public engagement in science. Many young scientists were inspired by the wonderful enthusiasm for science that Sir John exuded in his televised Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (presented jointly with Professor David Phillips FRS) in 1987, and in his book "Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution: The Genius of Man and Place", published in 1991 in honour of his scientific hero on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Sir John was a very prolific author (publishing more than 1,100 scientific papers) and an inspiring and dynamic lecturer. He was widely admired for the eloquence and poetic charm of his written and spoken words, and for his charisma in promoting science across the world. He received many prestigious awards and honours during his career, including the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 2016, and he was knighted in 1991 "for services to chemistry and the popularization of science".

As a very proud Welshman, Sir John epitomized the hard-working ethos and respect for the importance of education that were critical values within the mining community in which he grew up in South Wales. He was a native Welsh speaker, learning English as a second language in his schooldays, and his passionate support for Welsh culture, language and literature remained very strong throughout his distinguished scientific career.

Sir John always regarded the opportunity to fulfil a career in scientific research as a wonderful privilege and passion, and he will be remembered very fondly by everyone who met him for his effervescent enthusiasm for science, as well as for the manner in which he treated everyone with courtesy, humility and respect. During his frequent visits to Cardiff University as Honorary Professor, he greeted everyone warmly as his friend and colleague, especially the staff working in the refectory and coffee shop in the Main Building, and all the PhD students and postdocs that he met in the School of Chemistry – Sir John was always very inquisitive to hear the latest results from their research, and always very willing to provide wise guidance and generous advice.

In spite of failing health in recent months, Sir John continued to work with undiminished enthusiasm for science until his final days. His latest book devoted to the history of science, "Architects of Structural Biology: Bragg, Perutz, Kendrew, Hodgkin", published in 2020, provides fascinating insights into his personal acquaintances with the iconic scientists who developed the field of Structural Biology. And surely by a very apt coincidence, a pioneering paper in Nature Catalysis, on the deconstruction of plastic waste into hydrogen and high-value carbons, co-authored by Sir John, Professor Peter Edwards FRS and co-workers (University of Oxford), and Dr Daniel Slocombe (Cardiff University), was published on the day Sir John passed away.

Sir John Meurig Thomas truly enhanced the lives of everyone who had the privilege of knowing him, and he will be very sadly missed by all his many friends, colleagues and collaborators from around the world. But we find some solace in the knowledge that Sir John's scientific legacy will endure.

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