Charles'  Biography

by Nick Williams

Charles StirlingAfter a school experience that principally taught him how to endure (a useful characteristic for an academic), Charles began his long career by taking a BSc at St Andrews, graduating in 1952. He travelled to London for his PhD with Donald Hey at King's College, graduating in 1955.

In lieu of national service, he took a research fellowship at the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment at Porton Down from 1955-57. Here, he reversed the primary business of the institution and investigated antidotes to nerve gases, mapping out the chemistry of their destruction whilst developing the necessary sound experimental technique to handle them (and a long lasting aversion to gloves).

Having decided to aim for an academic position, he took an ICI fellowship at Edinburgh University (1957-59) until one of these rare opportunities arose, before taking up his first lectureship at Queen's University Belfast (1959-65). His work on stereochemistry and reactivity blended organic chemistry with an enduring interest in understanding chemical principles, especially quantitatively. Seeking promotion to reader entailed moving back to King's College London (1965-69) and here he initiated fundamental insights into strain effects and nucleofugality – challenging the orthodoxy that strained compounds form slowly and that pKa is a good indicator of leaving group ability (slightly undermining the utility of his encyclopaedic knowledge of pKas). Continuing his journey round the UK (although always proud of Scottish thrift – despite being a southerner by accident of birth), he managed to complete the set of home nations by moving to Bangor University in 1969 to take up a chair, where he became settled for many years and his elegant studies in physical organic chemistry that asked fundamental questions of Nature led him to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1986.

Charles Stirling as von GuerickeIn 1990, he accepted the invitation to come to Sheffield, where he was head of the organic section and had a period as head of department, overseeing an extensive period of staff recruitment in which he was exceptionally successful. This success was built on the way in which he supported young newly appointed staff, helping them to get research off the ground with encouragement to be adventurous, having confidence in them, and providing support in the form of resources. He believed that young people have good ideas worth listening to and he was an excellent role model - never scared to try something new, always up with the latest technology, always positive and optimistic. His own work on the behaviour of organic molecules at surfaces exemplified his ever curious and versatile interests in understanding fundamental organic chemistry wherever it occurs.

Throughout his career, Charles has ardently believed in the importance of engaging with the public to demonstrate the excitement and value of science, and is rightly proud of the success of Science Week in Sheffield with which he has long been associated. Nationally, he has presented the Royal Institution Christmas lectures, televised on BBC2; locally, he has not been averse to dressing up in 17th century garb and harnessing pantomime horses in central Sheffield to illustrate the power of the atmosphere, among many, many other popular science lectures. A brilliant orator, he continues to engage and entertain audiences whether eminent honorary graduands or leading sixth formers and their parents on tours of the chemistry department. Retirement in 1998 was greeted unconventionally – by returning to the bench; now with routine access to instrumentation (NMR, IR, MS…) that simply hadn't existed at the start of his career, when accurate UV spectroscopy had been greeted with awe during his PhD. Indeed, since retiring, Charles has spent more time actively at the bench than most academics have in their careers – and intends to keep sticking at it.