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Scientists of Wales: Professor Meirion Wyn Roberts

(December 01, 2017)


Professor Meirion Wyn Roberts

Professor Meirion Wyn Roberts


Wyn Roberts was born and brought up at a time and in a place where two cultures had significant influence; one was the non-conformist chapel where the minister brought his considerable talent to enlighten his flock and the other was the grammar school. The former nurtured an intellectual approach to life and the latter honed the mental capacity in a competitive atmosphere. Throughout his research career in the universities of Dublin, Bradford and Cardiff he displayed intellectual tenacity and sympathetic friendship in the context of determined endeavour to seek improvement. The specific discipline in chemistry in which he excelled was in describing molecular processes at the surface of metals. To this end, he devised pioneering experimental procedures which gave rise to improved data and better understanding.

He was born on February 1st, 1931 in Ammanford in Carmarthenshire. He was a pupil at Parc-y-Rhun Primary School in the town from where he passed his 11+ scholarship, which enabled him to become a pupil at Amman Valley County Grammar School. The ethos of this school and, to an extent, the locality was a competitive one, the context being aspiration to get away from the pervading limitations of the six local coalmines.

At the grammar school his innate interest in science was especially challenged and refined by the stringent standards set by two teachers, O.J. Evans (chemistry) and J.A. Owen (physics). In a letter written to me he recalled, ‘I was introduced to the concept of discovery in the sixth Form by O.J. Evans, who asked me to go and use a piece of chalk placed vertically in a solution of leaves to separate out the pigments. I don’t think that he referred to it as chromatography, but of course it became very rapidly one of the most important tools of the analytic chemist. It was the introduction to the idea of making a discovery that was important at that time and I was just 16 years old … O.J. Evans was very much a man to excite the imaginative qualities that pupils might have’.

From the grammar school, Wyn entered Swansea University College and took an honours degree in chemistry. After this he pursued postgraduate research choosing, in the absence of specific guidance from his supervisor, to explore the new field of surface science, that is, the reactions of molecules at solid surfaces; his interest was in the role of sulphur as a catalyst for the manufacture of nickel carbonyl – the Mond Process. From this initial hesitant exploration grew a distinguished career spanning 40 years, during which he pioneered experimental techniques and designed apparatus which became models for research and development used worldwide. After Swansea, his research interests were continued at Imperial College, London in 1955-57 and then at the National Chemical laboratory in 1957-59.

Spheres of nickel made by the Mond processSpheres of nickel made by the Mond process

His great promise as a surface scientist prompted his appointment as a lecturer in Queen’s University, Belfast (1959-66). There he carried out distinctive work on chemisorptions of gases on metal surfaces, on the work function of metals and on the physical chemistry of metallic oxidation. This led to his appointment as the Foundation Professor of Physical Chemistry at the new University of Bradford where he remained for 13 years (1966-79). Given the opportunities of his status he forged ahead with pioneering work that achieved great acclaim. In 1979 he was appointed Head of the Department of Physical chemistry at what is now Cardiff University. There he continued his life’s study of surface processes achieving devoted respect by all his colleagues, not only for his inherent excellence in his discipline but also for the sure and wise guidance he displayed in departmental and college administration. He remained at Cardiff for the remainder of his professional career, extending beyond formal retirement age in 1998 to the position of Honorary Research Professor until his death on March 5, 2014 at the age of 83.

During his career he received many awards and other forms of acknowledgement of his eminence in chemistry, including visiting professorships oversees, for example in Xiamen, China (1985), University of California, Berkeley (1985) and the Indian Academy of Sciences (1984).

Perhaps his closest friend throughout his life from student days and fellow chemist was Professor John Meurig Thomas. The closeness of their friendship in the early years was demonstrated by each being best man at the other’s wedding.

It was therefore fitting that at Wyn’s funeral the eulogy was given by his lifelong friend. What follows is extracted from that eulogy, the full version of which is available on the internet.

"We all remember Wyn as a person of great integrity; a generous, friendly, approachable, likeable individual who radiated goodness and kindness. He gave more than he received. He was charming, considerate and contributive. His smiling face, and inclusive attitudes to others ... was one of his hallmarks.

(We) first met in the Carmarthenshire Schools Athletic Team in 1947. He was an impressive sprinter, I a race walker. I played rugby against him… he was a swift and successful wing three-quarter.

Later, at Swansea, when he was a first-year research student and I was in the honours class, he befriended me, for he recalled our time together as athletes.

When I started my research work ... in organic chemistry, I ran into Wyn who told me that physical chemistry was much more exciting ... within a day I had switched topics ... so, in a sense, I owe my career as a physical chemist to Wyn. It was there that our lasting friendship was cemented ... We talked politics and religion ..

Wyn’s work with his colleagues ... was truly path-finding. He attracted scientists worldwide. Among his visitors at Bradford was Professor Nevill Mott, later a Nobel prize winner, who travelled specifically from Cambridge to talk to Wyn about his work on photoemission from metal surfaces and the oxidation of metals.

He was a great enabler. He drew the best out of people. He was innovative and had high standards and he always dealt fairly with all those who came within his ambit.

I valued beyond words Wyn’s friendship. He gave me good advice ... he gave me scientific texts as birthday gifts. The components of friendship cannot easily be counted. As Albert Einstein once said, in other context, ‘Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts’.

All I know is that friendship is one of the most important relationships we can experience on this earth ... friendship has no survival value. But friendship adds value to survival."

Following the death of Professor Roberts in March 2014, the School of Chemistry at Cardiff University established the Wyn Roberts Memorial Lecture. The inaugural lecture was given on 13 May 2014 by his good friend Professor John Meurig Thomas.

Neville Evans, December 2017

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:


Professor Sam Edwards; September 2017
Owen Thomas Jones; June 2017
Dyfrig Jones; March 2017
Ewart Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes; September 2016
Gareth Roberts; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016
Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015
Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015
William Robert Grove; March 2015
Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014
Professor Julie Williams; September 2014
Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014
John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014
David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013
Professor John Beynon; September 2013
John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012
Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012


cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2017


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