About Alan Dronsfield

Professor Alan Dronsfield is chair of the Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group.

Rutherford’s Nuclear Atom, Manchester

Landmark Plaque being presented

The Landmark Plaque was presented to Prof Rod Coombs, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University by RSC President Prof David Phillips. Photograph by Diana Leitch.

Chemical Landmark plaque to mark the centenary of Rutherford’s nuclear atom

The presentation took place in the Conference Centre, University Place, Manchester University on Monday 8th August 2011 as the opening part of the Rutherford Centennial Conference organised by the Institute of Physics to celebrate the centenary of the publication of Rutherford’s paper describing the discovery of the atomic nucleus. The conference marked one hundred years of the atomic nucleus by addressing the wide range of current topics characterising modern nuclear physics, including nuclear structure and astrophysics, hadron structure and spectroscopy, weak interactions and relativistic heavy-ion collisions. The historical aspects of his discovery were dealt with as part of the RSC’s Landmark event.

The conference itself was opened by Mr Derek Leask, High Commissioner for New Zealand, an appropriate choice given that Ernest Rutherford was a New Zealander by birth and lived there until he took up his postgraduate studentship in the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, in 1895.

Jeff Hughes of Manchester University gave an address outlining Rutherford’s life and scientific achievements. This was an amplification of his talk which he gave to our Group in March 2011 as part of our Mme Curie conference. Rutherford was appointed Macdonald Professor of Physics at McGill University, Montreal, Canada in 1898 where he quickly became an authority on the new science of radioactivity. In 1907 he moved to Manchester University and in 1908 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his McGill work on radioactive decay. As he regarded himself primarily as a physicist, he remarked that this was the greatest transformation in his career! At Manchester, Rutherford and co-worker Hans Geiger, together with their student Ernest Marsden, used α-particles to bombard gold foil. They observed an unexpected back-scattering of the particles and this led Rutherford to propose his theory of the nuclear atom. The results upon which his theory was based were, in fact, published in 1909 but it was at a meeting of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society on 7th March 1911 that his conclusions as to the nature of the atom with its nuclear “core” were given a public airing. The hypothesis was given a mathematical interpretation by Niels Bohr in 1913 into its now familiar form.

The second speaker was John Schiffer, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago who spoke on the development of nuclear physics post-Rutherford. This proved an ambitious aim for what was a lecture of less than an hour’s duration, but John managed valiantly and not only drew attention to the other landmarks that map out this field but also found time to speculate which of the current researches might be identified as the most promising ones.

The Landmark Plaque was presented to Prof Rod Coombs, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University by RSC President Prof David Phillips. The text on the plaque reads:

Ernest Rutherford on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the atomic nucleus by Ernest Rutherford, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and pioneer in nuclear physics, at the University of Manchester.

Prof Sean Freeman, of the Nuclear Physics Research Group School at the University of Manchester said: “It is a real pleasure for the Royal Society of Chemistry to be involved in the celebrations of the centenary of Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus.

“His genius uncovered the structure of the atom and effectively initiated the whole area of nuclear physics. It is particularly nice for the RSC to join us in the opening ceremony of the conference as Rutherford won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry ‘for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances’.

The University is particularly proud to receive a Chemical Landmark plaque to mark this anniversary”.

Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory, University of Oxford

Oxford landmark plaque RSC presentation

Oxford landmark plaque RSC presentation. © Royal Society of Chemistry

The latest presentation of a Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) National Chemical Landmark plaque took place on 30 November 2010 in the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory of the University of Oxford. It commemorated the laboratory as the site where John Goodenough and his team developed the cathode material that rendered feasible the construction of the first lithium-ion rechargeable battery. Today these devices power mobile phones, laptop computers, portable hand tools and electric vehicles. The plaque reads:

Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory where in 1980, John B. Goodenough with Koichi Mizushima, Philip J. Jones and Philip J. Wiseman identified the cathode material that enabled the development of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. This breakthrough ushered in the age of portable electronic devices.

At the ceremony greetings were received as a pre-recorded speech from Professor Goodenough from his laboratory in the USA. Present at the ceremony itself were Drs Mizushima, Wiseman and Jones.

Some 100 friends and guests were welcomed to the Laboratory by Peter P. Edwards, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and by Dr Richard Pike, Chief Executive of the RSC. Peter spoke briefly of the great contribution that John Goodenough and his team had made to science, industry and society by their discovery. This theme was expanded upon, historically, by Dr Phil Wiseman who presented a personal perspective of the events that led up to the discovery of the lithium ion rechargeable battery and the discovery itself.

The plaque was presented on behalf of the RSC by Richard Pike and received on behalf of the Department and University by the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Andrew Hamilton.

The forerunner to the discovery being commemorated was the sodium-sulfur battery. This had a high energy density, long cycle life and could be fabricated from cheap materials. However it needed an operating temperature of 300-350°ree;C, which limited its uses essentially to non-mobile applications such as grid energy storage. M. S. Whittingham demonstrated a system that could operate as low as room temperature in 1976. Lithium was reversibly inserted into, and extracted from, a TiS2 positive electrode

But this was not ideal as the lithium metal used to redeposit across the cell rather than ending up “plating” the electrode, thus causing electrical shorts and limiting the number of operational cycles.

The Oxford team used lithium in conjunction with lithium cobalt oxide that overcame this problem, whilst maintaining the attractiveness of room temperature operation

Their findings were published in Materials Research Bulletin 1980, 15, 783-789. The report concluded with the statement that “Further characteristics of the intrinsic and extrinsic properties of this new system are being made.” Little did they envisage that thirty years later that almost everyone from five years upwards would have an application of their work in their pockets: the ubiquitous mobile phone, powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

John B. Goodenough received a B.S. in Mathematics from Yale University in 1944 and a PhD in Physics in 1952 from the University of Chicago. During his early career he was a research scientist at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory as part of an interdisciplinary team developing random access magnetic memory. During the late 1970s and early 80s he continued his career at the Inorganic Chemical Laboratory, Oxford, where he identified and developed LixCoO2 as the cathode material of choice for the lithium-ion rechargeable battery. Although the Sony Corporation is responsible for the commercialisation of the device (first marketed in 1991) he is widely credited for its original identification and development. At present he is working at the University of Texas, Austin, where he is developing a new class of iron phosphate materials to replace the more costly cobalt components in rechargeable batteries.

The Historical Group was represented at the Award by Bill Griffith and Alan Dronsfield.

Pfizer European Headquarters, Sandwich, Kent

This pharmaceutical firm, where several world famous drugs were discovered, was awarded with a Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) blue landmark plaque on 15 October 2010. The prize was in recognition of more than half a century of discoveries carried out by one of the UK’s leading companies, Pfizer. Its European research headquarters site is located in Sandwich, Kent. The company is widely recognised as having been at the forefront of many medicinal breakthroughs over the last fifty years.

Some of those discoveries include Viagra, the drug used to treat erectile dysfunction; Istin, the world’s leading treatment for hypertension and angina; Diflucan and Vfend, which treat life-threatening systemic fungal infections and, more recently, CelsSentri, a promising advance in the war against Aids/HIV, as well as Dectomax, which treats parasites in cattle.

In making the award, the RSC said: “Such discoveries are only possible by ensuring the highest level of research and development excellence. The long and consistent track record of the Pfizer, Sandwich, site is fully worthy of recognition under the Royal Society of Chemistry Chemical Landmark Award Scheme.” Dr Simon Campbell, who only a week earlier had been designated as thirty-first in the Times‘ “Eureka list of the 100 most important people in science”, is a former research leader at Pfizer and a past president of the RSC. He said: “I am very pleased Pfizer has received such a well deserved Landmark. This award recognises the innovation and dedication of thousands of Pfizer scientists in the discovery and development of innovative new medicines which have brought significant benefit to millions of patients world wide.” Dr Campbell was also involved in the research teams that produced Cardura, also used to treat high blood pressure and angina, and Norvasc, for high blood pressure and prostate enlargement.

The plaque was presented on behalf of the RSC by their immediate past president, Professor Dave Garner. Rod McKenzie, Senior Vice-President, Pfizer Research and Development said:

I am very proud to receive this award on behalf of Pfizer and our Sandwich site. Sandwich has long been a chemistry powerhouse, built on the passion and desire of generations of outstanding scientists to change lives for the better.  It is a wonderful testament to the many groundbreaking contributions to medicine Sandwich has made over the site’s fifty-six year history.

This was adapted from a Royal Society for Chemistry press release prepared by Paul Gallagher, Media Relations Executive.

Elsie Widdowson, Cambridge

The presentation of an Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) National Chemical Landmark plaque took place on 1st December 2009 to mark the lifelong dedication and work of Dr Elsie Widdowson (1906-2000), a pioneer in nutrition science.

A graduate of Imperial College, she obtained a PhD in 1931 for research into the carbohydrate content of apples. In 1933 Dr Widdowson decided to spend some time in the King’s College kitchens to learn about large-scale catering, prior to undertaking formal study in dietetics. Whilst there she met Prof Robert McCrance who at the time was analysing plant foods for carbohydrates as part of his study of optimal diabetic diets. Their collaboration lasted 60 years and included the epoch-making publication “The Composition of Food” first published in 1940. The sixth edition of this text is still in print, 70 years later. Her researches informed the Government on aspects of wartime rationing, especially in connection with the addition of vitamins and mineral supplements to basic foodstuffs. For instance, she suggested that wartime bread should be enriched with calcium salts to compensate for the anticipated reduction of diary products in the diet. The calcium fortification of white flour used for breadmaking remains a legal requirement today. For the seven years prior to her death on 14th June 2000, she was the most highly honoured UK female scientist, having been appointed both CBE and Companion of Honour, the latter in 1993.

Elsie Widdowson spent most of her working life in Cambridge so it was highly appropriate that the Landmark ceremony took place at the laboratory named after her, at the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research Unit, Fulbourn, Cambridge. The Director of the Unit, Dr Ann Prentice, gave an in-depth account of Elsie’s life, and the Landmark plaque was presented to Dr Prentice by Professor David Phillips, at the time President-elect of the RSC.

Original article written by Alan Dronsfield and published in V. Quirke (ed), Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter, August 2010.

May and Baker (Sanofi-Aventis), Dagenham, East London

The Royal Society of Chemistry presented a National Chemical Landmark plaque to Sanofi-Aventis (formerly May and Baker) to commemorate its research and manufacturing activities at the Dagenham, East London, site which started there in 1934. The presentation was made on 2nd July 2010 by RSC President Elect Professor David Phillips to Jim Moretta, Site Director Sanofi-Aventis, and the plaque itself was unveiled by Councillor Nirmal Singh Gill, Mayor of Barking and Dagenham. The Historical Group was represented by David Leaback, Peter Morris and Alan Dronsfield

The citation on the plaque reads

“….in recognition of the pioneering research and manufacturing work
carried out at the May & Baker (sanofi-aventis)
Dagenham site in a wide range of chemical
and pharmaceutical fields since 1934.
These products continue to benefit patients
and their quality of life
around the world”

Colin Ward, Ex Head of Analytical Development & Compliance, Quality Operations, Dagenham, has kindly supplied the following background to the Award:

The Dagenham site was bought by May & Baker then based in Wandsworth, for £1l,000 in 1919 but was not opened for business until 1934. It was to become the headquarters of the multinational, May & Baker Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rhône-Poulenc S.A., and in its heyday the site employed some 4,000 people.

The Dagenham site was diverse in terms of chemical manufacture with active pharmaceutical ingredients, pharmaceutical products, veterinary medicines, aromatic chemicals, agrochemicals, photographic chemicals, plastics, industrial and fine chemicals being manufactured there over the last 75 years.

In addition to chemical and pharmaceutical manufacture, Dagenham had a strong R&D base and some significant molecules were synthesised here. Perhaps the most notable are the bacteriostatic sulphonamides, with M&B 693, Sulphapyridine, synthesised in 1937 and M&B 760, Sulphathiazole, a year later. Both were very active against cocci infections and were the forerunner of the antibiotics. During WW2, it was noted that M&B 693 had saved many thousands of lives. Indeed Sir Winston Churchill extolled the virtues of M&B 693 having been treated with it for pneumonia infections twice during the war.

Research on sulphonamides stopped after these two products but continued with other therapeutic agents and agrochemicals. Dagenham was instrumental in developing the diamidine group of bacteriostats, including Pentamidine, Propamidine and Dibromopropamidine, the beta-blocker Acebutolol hydrochloride, the HBN herbicides, Ioxynil and Bromoxynil, the phenoxybutyric acid herbicides and the carbamate herbicide, Asulam. In addition it developed and manufactured the veterinary compounds, Dimetridazole, Sulphaquinoxaline and Isometamidium chloride and marketed many improved products in the field of photographic chemicals, developers and fixers.

The site has won the Queens Award for Industry three times for technological innovation and in 1974 was granted a royal warrant as suppliers of agricultural herbicides to HM Queen Elizabeth II.

From its May & Baker beginnings. Dagenham has had several name changes and as the Company expanded and merged the site became consecutively Rhône-Poulenc Ltd., Rhône-Poulene Rorer, Aventis and latterly Sanofi-Aventis. However, although the sign on the gates is now Sanofi-Aventis, the site is still very much “May and Bakers” to the local community.

However, in recent years many of the plant’s activities have either been has been discontinued or transferred to other Sanofi-Aventis locations. At present it is only manufacturing sterile oncology products and a couple of other anti-cancer drugs. The work force has shrunk to 450 employees and in December 2009 it was announced that the whole Dagenham operation would close by 2013. The site will be redeveloped as an industrial park and sadly an era of London’s chemical industry will become history.

Original article written by Alan Dronsfield and published in V. Quirke (ed), Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter, August 2010.

Museum of Victorian Science, North Yorkshire

I can guarantee that virtually no readers of this article will have heard of this museum, located somewhat out of the way in the village of Glaisdale, near Whitby, North Yorkshire. It’s not a museum in the conventional sense – you can’t simply turn up, pay your admission fee and wander round. Instead you have to book in advance (£20 if you turn up as an individual, or £10 a head for groups of 2-5). In return you get a two-hour lecture demonstration of aspects of radioactivity, electrical discharges and the work of William Crookes, and (briefly) Thomson’s work that led him to “discover” the electron. I claim these as chemical discoveries, but physics colleagues might disagree. We also see demonstrations of various electrical machines including those like Priestley might have used in his experiments. These were improved during the 19th century culminating in the famous Wimshurst Machine (1880) capable of generating sparks several inches in length.

The museum’s website is at http://www.museumofvictorianscience.co.uk and bookings should be made by telephone: 01947 897440. I went as one of a party of four like-minded scientists. The talk was tailor-made to our mainly chemical interests, and as they say, a good time was had by all!

Original article written by Alan Dronsfield and published in V. Quirke (ed), Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter, February 2010.

Harwell Laboratory, Oxfordshire

The following account of the work of the Harwell laboratory has been adapted from “B220 – Sixty Years of Scientific Discovery” published by Research Sites Restoration Ltd to commemorate the Chemical Landmark award.

“For sixty years, Harwell’s radiochemical laboratories have been at the heart of the UK nuclear chemical industry, initiating and developing much of the original science and technology upon which that industry was based, and attracting and fostering the skills of some of the country’s most talented and forward-thinking scientists.

In 1946, with the nuclear industry in its infancy, it was recognised that a specialised building was needed to carry out chemical studies on radioactive materials. The then Atomic Energy Research Establishment – later the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority – had just been set up at Harwell and was initially undertaken in modified RAF buildings already on the site. It was soon recognised that a specialist laboratory was needed and the building that emerged, known as B220, was completed in 1949. It was the only radiochemical building of its kind in Europe and the most advanced to be built anywhere in the world.

It is essentially the same building that has remained in use until the present day, housing scientists who collectively have greatly increased the sum of our radiochemical knowledge and making important discoveries in areas such as reactor fuels, medical radioisotopes and the management of nuclear waste.

As part of the national atomic energy research and development programme, scientists at the Harwell laboratories studied the chemistry of irradiated fuels and actinides – radioactive heavy metals such as plutonium, protactinium and neptunium. At this time they led the world in the development of reprocessing techniques to isolate and purify plutonium from radioactive fuel.

Today’s mature nuclear industry no longer required a large-scale facility like the radiochemical laboratories and since the mid-1990s a progressive programme of decommissioning has been underway. In the last 15 years a total of 350 glove-boxes used for the handling of radioactive materials have been decontaminated, dismantled and removed. Several laboratories have been decommissioned and much of building B220 is now empty and safe for conversion to alternative use. It will remain as a testament to the many fine scientists and engineers who have worked there down the decades in the furtherance of the UK’s nuclear power industry.”

Original article written by Alan Dronsfield and published in V. Quirke (ed), Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter, February 2010.