Laureation address – Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart and Professor Eleanor Dodson

Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart and Professor Eleanor Dodson

Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science

Laureation by Professor Derek Woollins
School of Chemistry
Wednesday 23 June 2010

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart for the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

Fraser Stoddart is in the opinion of many people the leading practitioner of supramolecular chemistry and, indeed, one of the most visible and influential chemists in the world.

Fraser Stoddart was born on Victoria Day (May 24) in Edinburgh in 1942. The son of a tenant farmer he grew up in modest circumstances without electricity or modern day conveniences. He was blessed with a yearning for knowledge and supportive parents who after encouraging his inquisitive nature in his infancy duly sent him off to Edinburgh University in 1960. After his degree he soon embarked on research and published his first research paper in 1964 and earned his PhD two years later under the supervision of Sir Edmund Hirst, who had received his early training at St Andrews between 1915 and 1923.

After his PhD, Fraser won a National Research Council of Canada Fellowship and spent three years working at the Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario before returning to the UK in 1970, first as an ICI Fellow, and then as a lecturer at the University of Sheffield. During the first part of his twenty years at Sheffield, Fraser developed his knowledge and research activities in many different directions. Typical of his ambition, foresightedness and perhaps a streak of contrariness was his decision to take advantage of the Science Research Council Secondment scheme by going to work in ICI Corporate laboratories in Runcorn between 1978 and 1981. In Fraser’s own words the time at ICI enabled him to ‘cast off a reserved and serene demeanour and become much more aggressive and combative’. This is the Fraser I have known for the past thirty years. If I can add a personal recollection it is of arriving into Imperial College at 8.15 in the morning to find Fraser already admitted to the building courtesy of the cleaners. Despite having driven from Sheffield to London he would be already hard at work preparing material ready for a day’s hard work with the two X-ray crystallographers in that department – through the early 80s many of his crystal structures came via a PhD student from Imperial, Alexandra Slawin. Of course this association is now rekindled since she is now Professor Slawin here in St Andrews and Fraser collaborates with her via an NSF/EPSRC initiative.

In 1990 Stoddart moved to Birmingham to become the Haworth Professor of organic chemistry – this post is named after the Nobel laureate W.N. Haworth, who spent a significant part of his early career (1912–1920) in St Andrews and who had trained a young Edmund Hirst. Stoddart’s research thrived and he continued to train and inspire many future stars including Doug Philp (now Professor Philp) here in St Andrews. Apart from driving his research forward with passion and creativity Fraser also completely revived the Chemistry Department at Birmingham and, during his tenure there, it regained much of its former glory. Nonetheless, he could not resist the lure of the USA and, in 1997, he moved on to UCLA in California. In 2002, he became Director of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, but still he had more to give and in 2008 he moved to Northwestern University where he is now Director of the Centre for the Chemistry of Integrated Systems.

Great science is elegant, simple and exciting. Great new science requires inputs from a variety of diverse sources and a mind that can bring them together. Stoddart developed rules and understanding in molecular recognition and applied this knowledge in exciting new ways. The first systems were essays in the craft, as his group learnt how to form mechanically interlocked molecules – the so-called catenanes and rotaxanes. At that time Stoddart’s work was recognised for its intellectual rigour and elegance but was definitely not mainstream and his self-belief and contrariness must have been essential in the early 80s. His perseverance paid off, as in the 1990s the early interlocked molecules blossomed into molecular machines and switches where the components can be made to move via chemical, electrochemical or photochemical stimuli. These molecular switches have progressed into more complex nanosystems and molecular electronics. Stoddart has done what great chemists do; he has spanned many fields and built a programme that is uniquely recognised as his. He has impacted on and inspired several generations of scientists and taken his discoveries from key fundamental observations to important technological advances.

Stoddart’s trophy cabinet simply groans with awards from all over the world and time is too short for me to do more than mention a few examples. He was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1994, was a Cope Scholar of the American Chemical Society and made a Fellow of the German Academy of Natural Sciences in 1999, and was awarded the Nagoya Gold medal in Organic Chemistry in 2004. In 2007, he was appointed Knight Bachelor and won the King Faisal International Prize in Science as well as the Albert Einstein World Prize in Science. But do not think this is a retrospective. Stoddart has published almost nine hundred research papers and shows no signs of slowing down – in the past eighteen months he added fifty to his tally. I truly believe more prestigious awards await Stoddart in the years ahead.

Stoddart is to my mind the epitome of a good chemist. He is energetic, creative and inspirational with an underlying integrity and freedom of spirit and expression that leave him unfettered by conventional science or opinions. Truly in the words of a well known advertisement: ‘If Carlsberg made chemistry professors this is what they would look like’.

I have already alluded to Fraser Stoddart’s associations with St Andrews, trained by Hirst, a collaborator with Slawin, PhD supervisor of Philp – the influence and connections are clear. The University of St Andrews may rejoice in its happy connections with Fraser Stoddart.

It is a great pleasure to be able to recognise publicly our appreciation of Fraser Stoddart and his contribution to chemistry, nanotechnology and to international science as a whole.

Chancellor, in recognition of his major contributions to Chemistry, I invite you to confer on Fraser Stoddart the Degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

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