Reflections of some students at the celebration in September 2011 of 50 years of teaching and research in the building Professor Coates helped to design for chemistry at Durham

Professor Coates came to Durham when Chemistry occupied the Dawson Building, opened in 1924, together with all other sciences, Biology, Geology, Physics. Research Space was limited. Annual intake into years two and three of BSc Chemistry (Hons) was no more than 20, from a first year in which students chose studies from the sciences which enabled specialization in honours or combined and general science degrees.

It is remarkable to those of us who were the students in those early days to reflect that by 1960 Coates had achieved - through his commitment, energy, enthusiasm and vision - new staffing and leadership in Inorganic, Organic, and Physical Chemistry as well as continuing the specialism of Radiochemistry for which Durham was a well known centre. He found time also to establish research in organometallic chemistry especially of Group II and III elements and the later transition Group VIII and IB elements and, through Frank Glockling’s work, Group IV elements and early work on metal-metal bonds. To those achievements he added the design and development of the first substantial wing of the new Chemistry Building (two floors Chemistry, one floor Geology) and the Methuen monograph ‘Organometallic Chemistry’ . First published in 1956, its 378-page second edition in 1960 became the ‘bible in the field on this topic at that time’; recruitment of Malcolm Green and Kenneth Wade as co-editors led to the two-volume third edition in 1968.
GEC’s characteristics as an eminent researcher, an inspirational supervisor, an enthusiastic teacher and a benevolent supporter of students are illustrated below. His wide knowledge and theoretical understanding, with preparative chemistry and skills often leading developments at that time were apparent. It was our challenge and opportunity to respond for which our efforts would be acknowleged with appreciation.


‘When I went to Durham in 1958 one of the first lecture courses was by Professor Coates. His inspirational lectures were absorbing and stimulated my interest in chemistry.’ NB

'As an undergraduate in the late 50s and early 60s I was inspired by Professor Coates's lectures on Organometallic Chemistry which, at the time, was at an early stage of development. The bible on this topic at that time was his Methuen monograph, I still have my copy of the latter version ……and, on reflection, there is no doubt that the lectures and mentorship that I received from Geoffrey Coates as an undergraduate were highly influential in my choice of career.' TC

‘My first encounter with Professor Coates was when attending for interview in 1956. He asked, perhaps to relax me, to describe an experiment I’d recently undertaken at school. When I said we’d witnessed the spectacular Goldschmidt thermite reaction for the extraction of chromium he sprung upright with great enthusiasm and perhaps there began a ‘chemistry’ relationship, of which I had no concept at the time, that would lead to three enjoyable years of research, and challenge with his stimulating guidance .’ CP

Awe and Respect

‘I was very much in awe of Prof. Coates, and rather feared him. I remember being interviewed for entry into the Chemistry Department as an undergraduate, and he asked me if I could suggest how to distinguish between two pairs of salts. I can’t remember what they were - something like potassium nitrate/sodium chloride and potassium chloride/sodium nitrate, I think. I said triumphantly that they could not be distinguished in solution, because each pair would give the same four ions. Alas, this was not the right answer. He said something about the use of a hand microscope to look at the crystals. I had not thought of that! Alas, I still think ‘inside the box’ too much!’ PC

'While I was an undergraduate I went very much in awe of Prof. Coates, as did most of my contemporaries.' PM

‘His academic standing was always something that impressed me. Whatever the branch of chemistry under discussion at the Chem. Soc. lectures, Prof. was always the one who posed probing and pertinent questions of the speaker. He was a man I held in great awe and admiration.’ NP

Learning a lot

‘He had a quite amazing general knowledge of chemistry. He had a first class command of the English language, both written and spoken, and many is the time that I was on the wrong end of a comment about my inability to write decent English.’ NB

‘My memories of Geoff are of his research skills and intuition, his teaching prowess and, above all, his warm and supportive personality. He managed to hide the more human side of his character quite well from us as undergraduates. Whether this was by accident or design, I will never know, but it was rather a shame, because those of us who did not go on to do post graduate studies probably never saw this side of him. Instead, they would be left with an impression of a somewhat remote and frightening figure who gave excellent lectures but remained aloof…….’ TF

‘…… we learned a lot from him; not only chemistry but also the importance of writing precise English. I recall that I once began my answer to a question on a Collection paper with the words ‘The chemistry of lithium is governed by its small size’. When the paper was eventually returned to me Prof. had written in the margin I was not aware that the chemistry of lithium was anything but large’ PM

'During a lecture on ortho- and para- hydrogen I remember him throwing out the question “How would you obtain pure hydrogen?” One student went laboriously through the classic A-Level answer, passing the gas through various reagents to purify the gas obtained from zinc and acid, only to get the response from Prof. “Rubbish - get it out of a cylinder!” ' NP

Establishing the new building and laboratories

‘There is little doubt that the creation of the new chemistry building required a great deal of Geoffrey's time. I vividly recall one day his comment on leaving the lab saying that the next hurdle was the colour of the bricks for the new building and their design, far removed from his research interests.’ GC

‘I remember well the move from the Dawson Building. Peter Dixon and I had shared use of the rather gloomy and old-fashioned laboratory outside Professor Coates's office for my first year of research. The new laboratory into which I moved was such a contrast, being light and spacious and with workbenches fitted out so completely.' SG

‘Practical chemistry in the first year [1958] was in the depressing huts and in the second year we progressed to the Dawson building, better but old, and then in the final year to the amazing new labs designed by Coates. I was lucky to have Professor Coates as the supervisor of my final year practical project and he subsequently became my PhD supervisor using the excellent facilities he had established in the new building.’ NB

‘My bench was at the end of the laboratory next to the small lab occupied by research fellow Graham Cox (and occupied in the following year by Ken Wade). The other occupants of my lab were Robin Mukherjee, John Graham and John Livingstone. The latter, fortunately at the opposite end of the lab from me, made a bit of an attempt to destroy our new home by producing a significant explosion when carrying out some preparation - no one was hurt but a section of Robin's high-vacuum line was shattered. John's bench was taken over the following year by Norman Bell who, thankfully, produced nothing so spectacular.’ SG

Supporting students' work in the laboratories – new skills and techniques

‘Mention of a high-vacuum line reminds me of how that first year in the new lab gave me a demonstration of Professor Coates's broad abilities. I had reached a stage in my research where I now needed such a system and Prof asked me if I was able to do glass-blowing. Admitting that my experience was limited (i.e. I could join two tubes together!) he proceeded to do most of the intricate work on constructing the required system to a standard that professional glass-blowers would be proud of.’ SG

‘Above all I recall the patience he showed in leading me through the labyrinth of practical chemistry when dealing with compounds sensitive to air. His instructions on the correct operation of the vacuum tree were vital to the successful completion of my doctorate.’ GC

‘At the end of the first year it was a borderline decision as to whether I would be allowed to continue on the chemistry degree course but following interview by Geoffrey Coates, Ken Musgrave and George Kohnstam, to whom I am eternally grateful, I was allowed to progress to the second year. I repaid their confidence in me by getting a ‘first’. ‘Behind the sometimes brusque facade he was a caring supervisor, always interested in what you were doing and he would most days see his students twice a day and come for morning coffee with them. He was an excellent glassblower and built his own vacuum line and designed apparatus for handling air sensitive compounds and would sometimes help in their manipulation’. NB

‘….. How wrong I was, was very soon made clear to me. It is fair to say that I did not have the best start to my PhD work and, after two terms, I had really produced next to nothing and was losing heart. Without my even asking, Geoff took me to one side, asked me what the problem was etc and suggested that I move onto a slightly different, but related topic. The deal was that if I started to get results, I had to return, after a suitable time, to the original work and try again. Naturally, I agreed and before long, the results started to literally tumble out. Eventually, Geoff said that it was time to go back to where I had started and originally struggled. Hey presto, as if by magic, things worked out second time round.

Of course, it wasn't magic at all. It was down to Geoff's experience, and perception of the way research was likely to go, and a recognition of the fact that I was a slow learner of techniques - something that came to me with the practice that I got from actually producing the little organoberyllium species that my sponsors were paying me to do. What Geoff knew, was that you learn nothing from butting your head against a brick wall except that it gives you a headache. After that, I thoroughly enjoyed my PhD time and work and was sorry when it ended.’ TF

'When we became research students he was always interested in what we were doing – even those of us who were being directed by other supervisors. He would bustle along to visit us in Harry Shearer’s group on Saturday mornings to discuss aspects of the crystal structures that were emerging. He once referred to us as ‘The Department of Truth’. On one occasion I was greatly chuffed to receive an air mail letter from him while he was abroad (I think in ‘The Golden Land’) because he had been able to track down a reference to the original preparation of one of the compounds I was studying. He was writing from one of the very few libraries in the world where the relevant journal was available. He was an inspiration to many of us at that time.' PM

‘I was fortunate to select or be selected to undertake my third year project under his supervision. This involved synthesising a number of tertiary phosphines in a small room but with a good fume cupboard but little else than electricity and a nitrogen (O2-free) cylinder. Nevertheless the odours picked up by my clothes and body did not endear me at college to my fellow arts students! This was a successful project with one exceptional happening, when my inexperience led to an alarmingly ‘out-of my control’ fast flask reaction (unexpected from the source in the journal article.) A shaken student went with trepidation to the Prof’s office, but to be greeted with the friendly ‘gone up on you old boy’ followed by his supervision of a repeat on the next occasion of how to undertake in a safe manor a reaction which one had never carried out previously and learn from one’s own experience. This reminds me of the lecture in which some students were in jocular mood when he was describing the use of a ‘coldfinger’ he abruptly reprimanded them that ‘you won’t find this in the text books’. CP

Support to students - personal and friendly

‘Geoffrey was a man of few words. He did not like a lot of fuss as when he out of the blue dropped a wedding present on the bench where I was working with a very brief word of congratulations.

The caring side of Geoffrey's personality is illustrated by the interest he took in my financial plight during my first year when, having received a grant of £80 from Cumberland LEA (one third of the year's fees) I was penniless by the end of the summer term in 1954. Unknown to me he had taken direct action with the LEA and during an afternoon lab in May 1954 he approached me and said that he was confident that my financial situation would improve in the following year. It is the measure of the man that with all the responsibilities that he had he was still able to concentrate on the plight of a first year student. Quite remarkable, especially so since in the next year I received a full major scholarship.’ GC

‘At the end of my PhD, during which results were hard to come by, as he had obtained funding from the SRC to continue the beryllium hydride work, he invited me to continue to work for him for another three years as a post–doc with the additional support of a research technician. With excellent help from Tom Caygill these three years were very fruitful and during Geoffrey’s frequent absences from Durham, particularly when he spent six months in the USA, he allowed me to gain valuable experience of the supervision of his research students. My time working closely with Geoffrey Coates essentially determined my career pathway and I am very grateful for his guidance, patience, confidence in me and his considerable help’. NB

I had the good fortune to be invited on several occasions during my PhD years to dinner with the Coates’s when there were visiting speakers. I recall in particular dinners with Professors Bernal and Norrish. At one of these dinners, perhaps the first, Geoffrey offered me a Tio Pepe to which I in ignorance said “No thank you, a sherry please”. He made no comment but gave me a different brand - as always, a gentleman.' GC

‘ Following the announcement of my modest degree result I received a letter inviting me to his office. He offered me an unexpected research opportunity to be funded by the Ethyl Corporation in the USA, a decision required within 24 hours and easily made. So I was fortunate to begin three years of exciting and stimulating laboratory experiences: e.g. preparing lithium shot on a large scale, trimethylphosphine from methyllithium or trimethylaluminium, the first gold(I) ethynyls and their complexes and new trimethylgold(III) complexes isolable at room temperature. Of course in this work especially in the first year there were periods of slower progress, with Coates requiring my perseverance and yet judging well the time for a change. Move to the New Building with Coates- designed new state of the art laboratory benches, fume cupboards and services, refrigerated cabinets to -200 C and new spectrometry included one of the first Grubb Parsons far infra-red instruments enabling one of the first publications of applications in organometallic chemistry.’ CP

……when I got a letter from Wyoming in 1985 saying that he was in England and asking if he could call and stay with us for a couple of days, Lynne and I were delighted. I duly met him on Preston Railway Station and, as the old saying goes “some things never change.” Alighting from the train was this [relatively] elderly gentleman in tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbows, a beret and a small rucksack over his shoulders, looking for all the world as though he had just been walking in the Lake District rather than stopping off on a trip from the other side of the Atlantic. Enduring proof of his loveable eccentricity. …..whenever he stayed with us, our children (grown up by then) were fascinated by his inexhaustible anecdotes and wide knowledge. TF


‘Geoffrey had a keen sense of humour. Peter Dixon began his research in perhaps 1958 working on the measurement of dipole moments under Geoffrey's guidance. He had a problem with his time management in that he played football for the University and he wanted to clear the air with Geoffrey. Peter approached him saying that he wanted to talk about football to which Geoffrey replied“ I know nothing about football”. GC

‘After the building was first occupied, there was consternation that fumes from one part could be smelled in another. Apparently, Coates was at a meeting with the architect and other powers that be, who all emphatically denied that any such thing was possible. Reputedly, Coates dashed off and poured some mercaptan or other down the sink in the offending part of the building, and the fumes soon reached the assembled committee, who now had to accept the complaint!’ GC

‘Breezing unexpected or unexpectedly into the laboratory Prof. asked what form are the crystals in the Schlenk tube – to which I replied said ‘they look like balls’- He said ‘you stand there and say balls!’ Next day he came back to say ‘balls, prunes or prisms?!’ CP

‘John Graham wanted to ask Prof Coates whether he could do something or other. He went into Prof in the corridor, who ground to a halt and said “yes, you may” and disappeared quickly. Sometime later John realised that it was the answer to his question of a few days earlier.

‘Robin Mukherjee was very keen on keeping his apparatus very clean, so if you borrowed anything it had to be listed and signed for on a sheet of paper on his desk. Then when you returned the item it was ticked off. One day “three french hens” appeared on the paper. Robin was incensed and held a court of inquiry. However after a small laugh was heard in one corner of the lab he realised Prof Coates had written the offending words.’

One day someone brought a radio into the lab and had music playing. Prof came in and said to the person concerned. “Oh! music while you work” in a gently manner. The person concerned said “yes”. Coates then turned and said very sternly “NOT WHILE I WORK”, and disappeared from the lab.’ JL

A dramatic event with a fortunate outcome

‘The most dramatic event that I can recall during my six years in the chemistry department must be the aluminium hydride explosion that was reported on the BBC Home Service six pm news broadcast. This said that Professor Geoffrey Coates had been taken to hospital in Durham following an explosion in his laboratory. It must have been during my first year and I seem to recall it occurred during the Christmas vacation of 1953, but I could be a term out. One thing is certain and that is that the explosion was massive. It blew out the windows opposite the fume cupboard, blew open the door into his office, blew open the door into his secretary's office and had sufficient force to move her desk up against the wall behind her desk. He was very lucky to survive’ GC

Contributions from Norman Bell (1958-67); George Calvin (1953-59); Tristram Chivers (1958-64); Peter Corfield (1956-62); Tony Fishwick (1961-67); Stuart Green (1956-62); John Lloyd (1957- 63); Patrick Moseley (1962-68); Christopher Parkin (1956-62); Neville Pinkney (1956-61, 1969-70).

15 September 2011 CP

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