Accessibility navigation

Professor Derek Bryce-Smith 1926 - 2011

calm water

‘Derek combined style and engaging eccentricity with a truly phenomenal knowledge of science and a rare ability to inject enthusiasm into his students.’ Emeritus Professor Andrew Gilbert

Emeritus Professor Derek Bryce-Smith, had a long and distinguished career at the University of Reading. He joined the University as Lecturer in 1956 and retired as Professor of Organic Chemistry, 35 years later, in 1991. Derek's academic career spanned a wide diversity of scientific interests including organometallic chemistry, radical chemistry, photochemistry, environmental science, nutritional science and behavioural science. 

His humble scientific beginnings, however, gave no indication of the breadth and depth of chemical knowledge for which he would be later renowned.  Indeed his school reports at age 13 placed him 23rd in chemistry out of a class of 26, but first place in Latin!  The school report may have been the shock needed to awaken his seemingly dormant scientific abilities and interests, for he later remembered that in his early teens, he had "the overwhelming compulsion" that his career lay in chemistry not languages. Many past students, secretaries, academic colleagues, and journal editors could, however, testify that he never lost his enthusiasm for Latin and, throughout his life, he constantly applied its discipline and exactitude to the English language, along with, of course much reference to a well-thumbed copy of  Fowler's Modern English Usage.

Derek left school when he was 16 and went on to South West Essex Technical College where he took a London University External Degree in Chemistry and graduated in 1945 at age 19. For the next three years, Derek worked in industry in such diverse areas as coal research and colour photography:  the latter studies involved attempts to exploit information which had been "obtained" on the German Agfa process at the end of the Second World War. 

This work was far from successful and as Derek would later claim, with a smile, that the failure may have arisen from "the crafty Germans leaving out one or two bits of critical information". This period was not, however, wasted and while in gainful employment during the day, Derek studied in the evenings and in his spare time at West Ham Municipal College, Stratford, for a Special Honours Degree at London University. Those of us who have followed a similar route in our tertiary education will be well aware of the dedication and single-mindedness that such a course demands for a successful outcome.

By 1948, Derek had graduated from London University, and had turned his back on the more lucrative industrial side of chemistry. Instead he sought out the meagre existence provided by a postgraduate research studentship.

Of the Professors of Organic Chemistry he contacted for such a position only C.K. Ingold responded positively but at the interview, he was surprised to hear Derek decline his offer of a studentship giving as the reason that the proposed study on nitration of nitronium tetrafluoroborate did not catch his interest and did not provide the research training he was seeking. 

A change of topic to the stereochemistry of mustard gas derivatives likewise held little attraction for the young aspiring postgraduate chemistry student. It may have been with some exasperation that Ingold and Hughes together directed Derek to Professor Eustace Ebenezer Turner at Bedford College (London University) for Women. 

We will never know what really attracted the young Bryce-Smith to Bedford College and evidently made his doctorate studies so enjoyable.  It may have been the successful studies on the metallation of aromatic hydrocarbons, the beautiful location of the laboratories in Regent's Park or the seemingly never-ending supply of female companions.  Derek always insisted that the sort of young ladies who chose to study at a College from which men were normally excluded were not the kind which provoked his interest!

Despite the potential distractions, Derek's studies during this period were very productive and he soon began to establish himself as a worthy student of organometallic chemistry.  In 1951 Derek was awarded his doctorate from London University, by which time he had acquired a strong and ever-increasing appetite for academic scientific studies, and in the face of stiff competition he was awarded a prestigious I.C.I Postdoctoral Fellowship. 

These Fellowships had no restrictions or even directives and Derek could now pursue his developing interests in the chemistry of radicals:  this resulted in his taking up the Fellowship at King's College where Professor Hey, one of the leading authorities in this area at the time, worked.  

He was to hold the Fellowship for an extended period of four years and it was during this time that his interest in photochemistry and his concern over heavy metal pollution, which were to dominate his scientific career for a number of years, grew from a common source.

In his studies Derek had the need to generate ethyl radicals which he chose to do by ultraviolet irradiation of tetraethyl lead in the presence of cumene as a radical trap.  From these early experiments, Derek not only developed a great respect for the extreme toxicity of lead compounds but also demonstrated for the first time that benzenoid compounds, widely considered previously to be photostable, would undergo photoisomerization giving fulvenes: this observation provided Derek with a breakthrough into a new area of chemistry. 

In 1956 Derek moved to the University of Reading as a Lecturer and quickly set up a small research group to investigate in much greater detail the photoreactivity of aromatic compounds.  The isolation and characterisation of the 2:1 photoadduct of maleic anhydride and benzene in good yield widened the international interest in organic photochemistry enormously since it not only illustrated the synthetic potential of photoadditions to aromatic rings but also provided an early example of reactions arising from excitation within a charge-transfer absorption band. 

The photochemistry group in Reading was now firmly established and over the next decade rapidly expanded decade until at one time comprised 15 research workers, a large group in those days, investigating the photoaddition reactions of arene and of quinones.  

A further high point in the mid-1960s was the simultaneous observation by the Reading group and workers at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois of the meta photocycloaddition of ethenes to the benzene ring - a process which was to be so elegantly exploited in the 1980s as the crucial synthetic step towards numerous polyquinanes by Paul Wender's group at Stanford.

In 1966 Derek was appointed to the newly-established Chair of Organic Chemistry at the University and around the same time, initially under the auspices of the Council of Europe, the European Photochemistry Association (EPA) was founded with Derek as the first Chairman.   

Since that time the Association has gone from strength to strength with membership expanding around the globe and including interests reflecting activities in pure, applied and theoretical aspects of chemistry, biology and physics. 

In the early days if EPA, the Royal Society of Chemistry acknowledged the importance of "photochemistry" within the chemical community worldwide and chose the subject as one of a new series of publications to be known as Specialist Periodical Reports: Derek was the obvious choice as Senior Reporter, a position he held for 25 years.

During the 1960s and 70s, Derek also held consultancies with Shell and Esso, and following a visit from Roger Adams and an extensive tour of American academic and industrial establishments, he was invited by Du Pont to be one of their two non-American consultants; the other being Sir Ronald Nyholm.  Derek held this consultancy for six extremely interesting but exhausting years and it was towards the end of this period that his concern over heavy metal pollution of the environment grew into a major interest. 

As these matters began to consume more of his time and energies, Derek's activities, but never his interest in photochemistry, inevitably declined.  The demands on Derek also became political but there is no doubt in the minds of many that without Derek Bryce-Smith's constant and logical approaches and the scientific arguments against the spreading of lead across the length and breadth of the country by the motor car, it would today be impossible to buy lead-free petrol in Europe. 

His work in environmental chemistry was rewarded in 1984 when he was awarded The John Jeyes Silver Medal and Endowed Lectureship by the Royal Society of Chemistry. His perseverance with such matters reflected Derek's strong belief that the scientist must be socially aware and responsible, and willing to confront and where necessary oppose the dogma and financial interests of the establishment. Certainly this approach did not win him many friends in the commercial sector and may indeed have been detrimental to his academic career. 

After retirement from the Chair of Organic Chemistry at the University of Reading in 1991, Derek pursued his interests into nutritional disorders, including the factors which influence foetal development, stillbirths and behavioural aspects by researching the literature and from very many discussions with medical experts in the field until ill health during 2005 finally forced him give up these activities.

Derek was a rare bred of academic who is sadly all too rare in universities.  He combined style and engaging eccentricity with a truly phenomenal knowledge of science and rare ability to inject enthusiasm into undergraduate and graduate students alike.  The University system would now struggle to accommodate such a character who has an independence of mind, a deep social commitment and scores of ideas spreading across the spectrum of pure and applied science. 

Derek had an opinion about everything. I never knew him to be lost for an amusing or incisive comment. He was, however, always the gentlemen careful not to cause offence particularly to members of the fair sex whom he continued (refreshingly) to treat with old-world courteous and gallant manners that unfortunately may largely have died in many of us during the "female liberation".

But the man must have had his faults and weaknesses.  Indeed one of his more exasperating characteristics was his punctuality.  He was always on time but only JUST on time.  He was the only man in the South of England who was able to cross a congested town like Reading with such precision that he could guarantee to arrive just three minutes before his 9 a.m. lectures:  the source of much anxiety to staff, students, and his secretaries. 

He was a man of action, and although not an impatient man he did not take easily to waiting at airports or railway stations. In Derek's mind, trains should be boarded while they were rapidly accelerating out of the station and anxious colleagues were present to haul him into the carriage; not an activity possible in modern-day railways!

In this appreciation of Derek Bryce-Smith, I have probably emphasised the more human side of him rather than detailed his scientific achievements. The latter are evident to those who have known him or who have read his numerous publications. All too often the scientific aspects overshadowed the human being with whom I was pleased and fortunate to be associated for so many years not only as a colleague but also as a friend.  

Emeritus Professor Andrew Gilbert | June 2011

Page navigation

Search Form

Main navigation