Prof Ted Hughes was a trailblazer in kinetics and mechanisms in organic chemistry. As a researcher in the period, 1928-63, Hughes’ work changed the aspect of organic chemistry by progressively replacing empiricism by rationality and understanding. Hughes was a long time colleague and friend of Sir Christopher Ingold, equally recognised for this area.
Hughes and Ingold introduced the mechanism terminology of Sn1, Sn2, E1 and E2 to organic chemistry in the mid 30’s and behind this was a multitude of carefully planned reactions, a talent that Hughes possessed. The understanding that Hughes and often, but not always, Ingold developed on substitution and elimination will be core to every first/second year university chemistry course across the world
Hughes, son of a farmer, was born near Criccieth, in Gwynedd, close to where David Lloyd George was brought up. His first language was Welsh and was educated at Llanstumdwy Elementary and Porthmadog County Schools. He graduated with a 1st Class Honours in Chemistry at UCNW, Bangor and obtained his Ph.D. also from Bangor in 1930 with Ingold as the external examiner. During this period, under the Leadership of Prof K Orton, Bangor was one of the finest centres of physical chemistry in the world.
He joined Ingold’s new group at University College, London (UCL) where he stayed until 1943 when he was appointed to the Chair of Chemistry at Bangor.
Hughes developed an active research programme at Bangor and the best known work during this period was the development of a method for isolating isotopically enriched water from natural water by continuous fractional distillation. This technique yielded 18-O enriched water that could be used to trace the fate of particular O atoms in a substrate molecule undergoing reaction and thereby elucidating the mechanism of the reaction. We understand that this was the first time 18-O had been separated by distillation in the UK and would have opened the door to enormous advances in Chemistry, Biology and Nuclear Physics. During his tenure at Bangor, Hughes maintained his collaboration with Ingold by his appointment as Honorary Research Associate at UCL. It is also worth noting that Ingold spent the time during the World War Two at the University of Aberystwyth.
In 1948, Hughes moved back to UCL to a Chair in Chemistry where he remained until his death in 1963, aged 57. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1949.
While Hughes was dedicated to Chemistry, he had a love of breeding and racing greyhounds. When he died, he left a wife, a daughter and 57 greyhounds.
Ted Hughes must surely be one of Wales’ most eminent and productive chemists. The names of Hughes and Ingold are giants in organic chemistry and Bangor University was a key location along this journey. A true Welshman, born and educated in Gwynedd, Hughes’ contribution to organic chemistry would be well recognized by an RSC Chemical Landmark being designated at the Chemistry Department at Bangor University.
The Landmark recognition recognises both Prof Ted Hughes’s contributions and the 125 year history of Chemistry at Bangor. This is the first such recognition in Wales. Being bilingual, it is also the only Landmark to contain the Welsh language.
Original article written by Dr E Malcolm Jones, Secretary, North Wales Local Section and published in V. Quirke (ed), Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter, February 2010.