Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson

Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson was born in Todmorden [14th July 1921], the son of Henry Wilkinson.

He was educated at Todmorden Grammar school.

Geoffrey credited his uncle John Crowther with introducing him to chemistry and chemical manufacture by allowing him to play around in the small laboratory at the Sun Vale Works where John worked, and taking him on visits to various chemical companies.

In 1939, he gained a Royal Scholarship to Imperial College London where he gained his BSc and PhD.

On his graduation in 1941, the wartime Joint Recruiting Board said that he should stay in research.

In January 1943, with other chemists, physicists and mathematicians, he sailed from Greenock for his first crossing of the Atlantic, and worked as a scientific officer in the joint UK/US/Canadian atomic energy project at Montréal and at Chalk River until 1946. He joined a research group at the University of California at Berkeley, becoming the first non-American cleared by the US Atomic Energy Commission for work in the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory.

He worked at Imperial College London, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was professor of chemistry at Harvard.

In 1948, he converted platinum into gold at the University of California.

By the time he left for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1950, he had made more new isotopes of the chemical elements than any one else previously – and probably since.

In January 1956, he returned to Imperial College London, as one of its youngest-ever professors, to take up what had just been established as the first chair of inorganic chemistry in Britain, the Sir Edward Frankland Professor of Inorganic Chemistry. He held the post from 1956 to 1988.

In 1962, with F. A. Cotton, one of his former American students, he published the first edition of Advanced Inorganic Chemistry which changed the teaching of inorganic chemistry throughout the world. He made his last contribution to the 6th edition of the book shortly before he died.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1965.

At Harvard, his research had opened a way of producing organo-metallic compounds, joining metal atoms to molecules of organic chemicals in order to produce new structures.

In 1973, with Prof Ernst Otto Fischer of Münich, he received the Nobel prize for Chemistry for his work at Harvard on the Wilkinson Sandwich, organo-metallic compounds now used for detecting glucose in the blood and leading to the development of new catalysts used in the production of today's low-lead fuels.

When he went to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in December 1973, at the height of an oil shortage crisis, he used his acceptance speech to admonish the world for its dependence on oil.

He was knighted for his contributions to chemistry in 1976.

There is a Blue Plaque in his memory at 4 Wellington Road, Todmorden, where he lived between 1923 and 1946.

In 1982, he edited the encyclopædic 9-volume Comprehensive Organometallic Chemistry, which was followed in 1995 by the 14-volume supplement set.

He is survived by his wife Lise, the daughter of a Danish professor, and by their two daughters Anne and Pernille

© Malcolm Bull 2021
Revised 17:20 / 19th April 2021 / 5314

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