Professor Peter Maitlis FRS, 1933-2022

Professor Peter Maitlis FRS, who held a professorship in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Sheffield between 1972-2002 before becoming an emeritus professor, passed away on 18 May 2022

Profssor Peter Maitlis FRS

Peter Maitlis completed his BSc at the University of Birmingham in 1953, before joining the group of  Professor Michael Dewar at the University of London and being awarded his PhD in 1956. He stayed on as an Assistant Lecturer at the University of London (1956-60) before moving to the USA to take up a Fulbright Fellowship at Cornell University then a research associate position at Harvard working with Professor Gordon Stone, FRS.

In 1962, Peter moved to McMaster University in Canada where he was promoted through the ranks to a full Professorship. He moved back to the UK in 1972 to take up a position as Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Sheffield. He served a spell as Head of Department (1973-76) and became an Emeritus Professor in 2002. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1984 and served on the Royal Society Council (1991-93).

Peter was President of the Dalton Division of the Royal Society of Chemistry (1985-87) and Chairman of the SERC Chemistry Committee (1985-88). He was awarded numerous visiting lectureships and prizes, including the Tilden Prize (RSC, 1979); Award for the Chemistry of the Noble Metals (RSC, 1981); Sir Edward Frankland Lectureship and Prize (RSC, 1984); Ludwig Mond Lectureship (RSC, 1997); Kurnakov Medal of the Russian Academy of Sciences (1998); Foreign Member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Rome, 1999).

Peter’s research interests started with his doctoral work on N-heterocycles and organoboron compounds, before focussing, for the bulk of his career, on the chemistry of organo-transition metal compounds and their applications in catalysis. This began with the oligomerisation of alkynes mediated by palladium and the synthesis and reactions of cyclobutadiene complexes.

As part of these investigations, it was discovered serendipitously that hexamethyl(Dewar benzene) undergoes a novel transformation, in reactions with rhodium and iridium halides, to give pentamethylcyclopentadienyl complexes. The full J. Am. Chem. Soc. paper that reported these results in in 1969 (doi: 10.1021/ja01050a008) has received more than 650 citations to date and the “Cp-star” (Cp*) ligand and its derivatives have become ubiquitous in organometallic chemistry.

During the following years Peter’s research group explored the chemistry of Cp* complexes, particular those of rhodium and iridium, finding them to be useful catalysts for reactions such as hydrogenation, with Cp* acting as a strongly bound “spectator-ligand”. They also demonstrated the accessibility of high oxidation state Cp* Rh(V) and Ir(V) complexes by oxidative addition of organosilanes.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Peter’s research continued to look at a range of catalytic reactions, including many of industrial and commercial significance. A long-standing collaboration with BP Chemicals resulted in the development of detailed understanding of the mechanisms for carbonylation of methanol to acetic acid using rhodium- and iridium-based catalysts. He applied knowledge of organometallic reactions mechanisms to improve understanding of the Fischer–Tropsch reaction (hydrogenation of carbon monoxide) for the production of synthetic fuels. A further avenue of research concerned the synthesis of metallomesogens (metal-containing liquid crystals) which have useful optical and electronic properties. 

Peter collaborated with many groups worldwide and his research was published in nearly 400 journal papers and review articles. He also authored or edited a number of books: The Organic Chemistry of Palladium (volumes 1 & 2, 1971); Metal-Catalysis in Industrial Organic Processes (ed. P. M. Maitlis, G. P. Chiusoli, 2006); Greener Fischer-Tropsch Processes (P. M. Maitlis, A. de Klerk, 2013).

Peter was a larger than life character who held enormous respect in Sheffield and in the wider chemistry community. Over the years a large number of graduate students and young researchers benefited from his advice, encouragement and encyclopaedic knowledge of chemistry. Peter made a huge contribution to the Department of Chemistry and a prize in his name is awarded annually for the best MChem student research project. He will be greatly missed by all his friends and former colleagues.