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Obituary: John Harry Robertson

Dr John Harry Robertson, BSc, PhD, CChem, FRSC, FInstP

Members will be very sorry to learn of the death of Dr John H Robertson on 15 January 2003.

Born in China in 1923 to missionary parents, Dr Robertson had a distinguished undergraduate career at the University of Edinburgh, being Class Medallist in Chemistry for three consecutive years and graduating with First Class Honours in that subject in 1944. He spent the next three years in industry with the ICI Explosives Division, Ayrshire, before returning to Edinburgh as the holder of a Senior Carnegie Scholarship to complete a PhD on the X-ray structure determination of strychnine hydrobromide. This work rapidly achieved an established place in the chemical literature. Post-doctoral research at Pennsylvania State College, USA (1950-51) and a fruitful period as Research Assistant to Professor Dorothy Hodgkin, frs, at Oxford (1951-54), working on the structure of vitamin B-12, preceded his appointment as Brotherton Lecturer in the Department of Inorganic and Structural Chemistry at Leeds in October 1954. Dr Robertson was appointed a full Lecturer in the following year, being promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1968.

Dr Robertson was a greatly influential and enormously liked and respected figure within the Department of Chemistry. A clear and thoughtful lecturer, he was unfailingly approachable and courteous to students, and was a highly-regarded personal tutor. As one of a prestigious team of X-ray crystallographers, his research work was central to the development of modern crystallographic techniques. He was responsible for the solution of several crystal structures and published extensively in the field of X-ray crystallography, his output being characterised by the quality of his work and his attention to minute detail. A Chartered Chemist, Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and Fellow of the Institute of Physics, Dr Robertson was at various times Honorary Secretary of the Crystallography Group of the Institute of Physics, Honorary Secretary of the United Kingdom Crystallographic Council and a member of the British National Committee for Crystallography. He was also instrumental in setting up the British Crystallographic Association. Between 1964 and 1968, Dr Robertson was seconded by the University to take up the Chair of Chemistry at the Dar-es-Salaam College of the University of East Africa, where he was responsible for establishing new laboratories and a new curriculum, gaining a fine reputation as a teacher and administrator in the process. At Leeds, Dr Robertson served on a number of University bodies, including the Board of the Faculties of Science and Applied Science, the Standing Committee on Scholarships and Studentships and the Joint Committee on Overseas Students. He was also an active member of the AUT and the University Staff Society.

Dr Robertson retired from the University in September 1988. In his appreciation for the University Review at that time, Dr John Lydon described him as a kindly, caring man meticulous in those civilities we all intend, but do not always get round to He took pains to make contact with newly-arrived research students from abroad and worked hard to make them feel at home At a deeper lever, John Robertson was of the same mould and generation as other crystallographic social crusaders like Katy Lonsdale and J D Bernal and in his own quiet way was no less determined that the Universities should be centres of tolerance and social progress For over three decades, (he) was, more than anyone else, the human face of the School of Chemistry.

It was characteristic of Dr Robertsons generosity of spirit that, in retirement, he should have continued to look after the Departments Colvin Library, relinquishing this role only shortly before his death.

The funeral is to be held privately but a memorial service for Dr Robertson, to which all are welcome, will be held at 10.00 a.m. on Saturday, 25 January 2003, at the Headingley St Columba United Reform Church, 70 Headingley Lane, Headingley, Leeds 6.

J R GAIR Secretary

Published: 23 January 2003