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Alumni remember Dr Stuart Warren

"Since starting my independent academic and research career at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, I have made every effort to treat people from disadvantaged chemistry backgrounds who join my group the way Stuart treated me — with patience, understanding and kindness."

So says Kelly Chibale, now Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Cape Town, about his former mentor here, the late Dr Stuart Warren.

Kelly is just one of a number of alumni who got in touch with us following Stuart's death in March 2020 to share their memories of him, and let us know about the impact he had on them and their subsequent careers. We plan to arrange a memorial event in Cambridge, where we can pay tribute to our late friend and colleague, when circumstances allow.

Stuart was known to many of our former students as he spent almost all his academic career in Cambridge. Having first come to Cambridge to study Natural Sciences at Trinity College, he stayed on to complete his PhD with Malcolm Clark before moving to Harvard to conduct postdoctoral research.

Stuart then returned to Trinity as a research fellow before taking up a post at Churchill College as a teaching fellow in 1971. He remained in the Department of Chemistry as a lecturer and researcher, and author of chemistry textbooks, until his retirement in 2006.

Our Head of Department Dr James Keeler says: "It is hard to overestimate Stuart's influence on generations of chemists, both here in Cambridge and well beyond. Many of Stuart's former PhD students have gone on to fill leading roles in academia and in industry."

Professor Chibale is one of them. He grew up in poverty in Zambia, in the copper belt settlement of Kabulanda. He is now a Professor, and the founder and director of H3D, Africa’s only fully integrated drug discovery centre.

His father had died just after he was born and his mother, a market trader, encouraged him to use education as a route out of poverty. He obtained a chemistry degree with distinction from the University of Zambia. Then a scholarship brought him to Cambridge to study for his PhD with Stuart Warren.

"I will forever be grateful to Stuart for the opportunity he gave me to join his group and for the outstanding mentorship he provided," Kelly recalls. "I was ill-prepared for research at Cambridge, having come from Zambia. But Stuart was aware of my background, and was incredibly patient and understanding."

He adds: "Stuart laid the foundation for the person I am today professionally. His intellectual ability raised the bar and standard for me to aspire to."

Another former PhD student who remembers him well is Paul Wyatt, now Professorial Teaching Fellow in the University of Bristol School of Chemistry.

He says: "As a mentor, Stuart had a knack of getting the best out of people. He would tell me I was to do such-and-such and describe some new, unexplored and daunting challenge. And because of his unshakeable faith in my abilities (far more than my own!) I would try – and succeed – at something I otherwise would not have thought to attempt."

Education at all levels is important to Paul. His teaching has been recognised by several awards and he went on to work in this area with Stuart. Paul and Stuart co-authored the 2007 graduate textbook 'Organic Synthesis: Strategy and Control'. They also jointly delivered continuing professional development courses on organic synthesis to industrial chemists.

"Some of my best memories of Stuart are of when we were doing these lectures in industry," Paul says. "They were three full days of non-stop teaching and they were immense fun. We would spend dinner talking about the participants and how to engage them better the following day as well as a host of other topics.

"Since I had a similar sense of humour to Stuart, these days were filled with laughs and jokes which we would often bring into the teaching. I could not have wished for more entertaining and stimulating company and of course my own education continued all the while."

He adds: "Much of the work we did on these courses found its way into the 'Strategy and Control' book and our experiences with the participants certainly influenced the way we explored the themes. Stuart’s enthusiasm was the driving force on that particular project and I’m delighted to have been involved."

And Professor Marcel Jaspars of the Marine Biodiscovery Centre, Department of Chemistry at the University of Aberdeen, also has fond memories of studying with Stuart when he was an undergraduate here.

"I worked my way through all his books (on the carbonyl group, disconnection approach, etc)," Marcel says. "I particularly remember him giving us both an Aldrich catalogue and a target molecule and telling us to come back the next week with the most economical synthesis. This was really good practice, especially having to explain your route to him in front of the board."

And Stuart’s influence on his own teaching is still strong today, he explains. "At Aberdeen we use the big green textbook as the recommended organic chemistry textbook – its didactic style is far superior to all the other books out there, and I recommend the updated version of his programmed approach to synthesis to all the third-year students.

"I feel privileged to have been taught by Stuart," he adds. "It made a deep impression on what I chose to do, and the way that I teach today."

Dr Gordon Hutton wrote in with his memories of Stuart Warren. "Stuart took me on as a PhD student in 1990," he says. "I was surprised to be offered a position as I hadn’t done as well as I should have in my finals. He must have seen some potential at my interview. So the young lad from Motherwell turned up to the beautiful Cambridge and I was in awe.

"Stuart was a wonderful teacher, early on recognising my lack of skills in retrosynthetic analysis and surreptitiously leaving a copy of his book 'The Disconnection Approach' on my workbench. I loved my time in his group, mixing with the brightest people and experiencing amazing chemistry lessons at our Friday lunch sessions, in labs 287 and 106/110 and in the wider department where I became friends with Bill Jones' team of crystallography students. I think this is where my interest in the subject started and has taken me to my current role as a pharmaceutical Materials Scientist.

"Stuart inadvertently had the biggest possible impact on me as I married the other new PhD student who started in 1990, Susan O'Sullivan. We kept the relationship quiet for a couple of years but Stuart spotted us together once and the cat was out of the bag.

He was generous in all ways and loved entertaining his research group both in and out of Eltisley Avenue and we had many enjoyable evenings in Brown’s with good food & conversation. He educated my palate with fine wines and passed on lots of interesting foodie tips."

The Reverend Canon Dr Peter Jenner (Churchill 1974), now Dean of Chapel at the University of Chester, also affirms that Stuart influenced the way he has taught.  In an account entitled "Memories of a Brilliant Teacher," Dr Jenner says:  "I have always tried to live by Stuart's advice about offering encouragement.  For me he epitomises the way in which students never forget the positive impact academics have through encouraging learning and much else."  We are re-printing his entire account (click on the title), because it sums up the feelings of so many of our alumni.  

Thank you all for writing in!

Further tributes

"Stuart had a wonderful way of guiding research," says Professor Varinder Aggarwal, now Alfred Capper Pass Professor of Chemistry at the University of Bristol. "He gave you space to think and then, in discussions, solutions emerged that you owned and as a result you felt more empowered.

His Bristol Chemistry colleague Professor Jonathan Clayden agrees. "Stuart’s teaching style was one of bringing you into his confidence, of discovering things together, even of asking for help from other academics with more detailed knowledge during supervisions – I had never met another Cambridge academic who admitted that someone else might know the answer better than him!

"If he saw a student had a gap in understanding that needed to be filled, he’d say, with a note of concern in his voice: ‘You do know, don’t you, that…’. Invariably, I didn’t, but clearly Stuart thought I should, and that was enough to make me go and find out."

 

"He would add magic wands to highlight 'made up' chemistry or a Starship Enterprise for split infinitives."

 

"One thing that always made me laugh was Stuart’s annotations of my drafts," recalls Dr Stephen Thomas, Royal Society University Research Fellow in the EaStCHEM School of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. "In green fountain pen, he would meticulously correct my terrible writing. He would add magic wands to highlight 'made up' chemistry or a Starship Enterprise for split infinitives. It took a little while for me to understand that "if you can’t read the English, you can’t read the science".

He adds: "My greatest memories are of group meetings. These were very special, and have not been matched anywhere I’ve gone since, even as I have continually tried to emulate them myself.

There was an excellent level of discussion without any worry of being 'wrong' or asking 'silly' questions. Everyone was an equal. Stuart had no chemical ego, so would happily default to someone else (academic, post-doc, PhD or undergraduate). The only important thing was that we all went away with a greater understanding of the subject and the ability to apply that understanding."

"In all my interactions with Stuart over the years there was one thread that came through very strongly," adds Nick Greeves, Director of Teaching and Learning in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Liverpool."He was always teaching me how to do better.

"I recall a time when I was an undergraduate in the organic lab and I was collecting and filtering a crystalline product. Stuart came over and advised me how to get the optimum vacuum, how to wash the product and to air dry it in the Buchner funnel before collecting it. Simple advice but very effective and when I pass it on to my own students they look surprised that such a common operation could have nuanced aspects."

Peter O'Brien, Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of York, agrees. "For me, Stuart's greatest talent was his clarity and precision of expression of organic chemistry, whether it was the care with which he drew molecules or disconnected them or the language he used to deliver his messages - it was so memorable - whether in a 1:1 discussion, a group meeting or an undergraduate lecture. This is my abiding memory of Stuart."

He adds: "I have wonderful memories of Friday lunchtime group meetings with Stuart holding court and making meticulous notes on our blackboard presentations, against the backdrop of the gentle aromas of freshly brewed China and Darjeeling tea!"

Revisiting Stuart Warren's classic textbook

For more than 40 years, Chemistry undergrads have worked their way, pencil and paper in hand, through Stuart Warren's iconic guide to synthetic chemistry, 'Chemistry of the Carbonyl Group'.

In this article in the Spring 2019 issue of Chem@Cam Magazine, Dr Tim Dickens - who recently revised it - talks about why he thinks the book is still essential reading.