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Former Peterhouse master and distinguished chemist Prof Sir John M Thomas dies at 87





Distinguished chemist Professor Sir John Meurig Thomas, who was master of Peterhouse for nine years, has died at the age of 87.

With more than 20 honorary degrees and a Royal Medal from the Royal Society to his name, Sir John was widely recognised as one of the country’s leading scientists - and even had a mineral, Meurigite, named after him for his contribution to geochemistry.

Prof Sir John M Thomas, the former Peterhouse master, who has died at the age of 87. Picture: Jeremy Pembrey (43170415)
Prof Sir John M Thomas, the former Peterhouse master, who has died at the age of 87. Picture: Jeremy Pembrey (43170415)

Renowned for his work in the science of catalysts and solid state chemistry, he had 30 patents to his name, many of them which made chemical processes more environmentally friendly. His method for synthesising ethyl acetate was adopted on an industrial scale.

A regular presence at Peterhouse, the University of Cambridge’s oldest college, until very recently despite his ailing health, he published his final work, Architects of Structural Biology, in February. It celebrated the work of four Nobel scientists, including two fellow Peterhouse members, John Kendrew and Max Perutz.

Following his death last Friday (November 13), Bridget Kendall, the current master of Peterhouse, said: “Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this sad time. We shall all miss him very much.”

Born in Carmarthenshire near Llanelli in Wales, his father and brother were miners. After a BSc at the University College of Wales, he completed a PhD in solid-state chemistry at Queen Mary College, London, then moved to Aberystwyth, where he pioneered the use of electron microscopy to examine the surface topography of minerals and crystal hydrates. In 1969, he became a professor and in 1978 he became head of physical chemistry at Cambridge and a fellow of King’s, where his team worked on catalysis using high-resolution electron microscopy and NMR.

He succeeded Sir George Porter as director of the Royal Institution in London in 1986, and held the Michael Faraday chair and directorship of the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory, developing new catalysts for green chemistry and clean technology.

In 1987, his Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on crystals was televised by the BBC.

He became deputy pro-chancellor of the University of Wales and was knighted in 1991 "for services to chemistry and the popularisation of science". He returned to Cambridge as master of Peterhouse in 1993, succeeding Henry Chadwick. He remained until 2002.

Known to all as JMT, he set up the college’s development office, which has secured funds for the Ward Library, the Gunn Gallery and the new Whittle building.

Paying tribute on the college’s website along with colleagues, Prof Adrian Dixon, who succeeded him as master, said he “stimulated the scientific community of the college, especially by frequent attendance at the Kelvin Club”, adding: “As master he greatly raised the profile of women in the fellowship and reinvigorated the musical side of the college. His prodigious memory held a fund of anecdotes which were greatly appreciated by everyone at various college functions.”

Sir John Meurig Thomas, former master of Peterhouse at the University of Cambridge, died on August 13, 2020, aged 87. Image: Science History Institute, Philadelphia, PA, USA / Conrad Erb. Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (43148908)
Sir John Meurig Thomas, former master of Peterhouse at the University of Cambridge, died on August 13, 2020, aged 87. Image: Science History Institute, Philadelphia, PA, USA / Conrad Erb. Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (43148908)

He was the author of more than 1,000 scientific articles and the writer and editor of many books during his retirement as honorary professor of materials science at Cambridge. These included Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution: The Genius of Man and Place and Principles and Practice of Heterogeneous Catalysis.

He co-authored a Nature Catalysis paper in his retirement on a new process for directly converting hydrocarbons into pure hydrogen and solid carbon.

In Who's Who, he listed ancient civilisations, bird watching, and Welsh literature among his interests.

He married Margaret Edwards in 1959, and had two daughters with her, Lisa and Naomi.

Margaret died in 2002 but not before they had overseen the transformation of the master’s lodge.

In 2010, Sir John married Jehane Ragai, professor of chemistry at the American University in Cairo.

Sir John was described as “a devout and charismatic Welshman”. He was the first scientist awarded the Medal of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion and was honoured with membership of the Gorsedd of Bards of the National Eisteddfod of Wales for his distinguished contribution to the Welsh nation. And, whether at home or in Cardiff, he never missed watching a Wales rugby international.

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