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Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry

Brian Thrush smiling at camera

Emeritus Professor Brian Thrush, courtesy Chemistry Photography

We are saddened to announce that Emeritus Professor of Physical Chemistry Brian Thrush died peacefully on 14 September after a long illness.

Brian Arthur Thrush came up to Emmanuel College in 1946, first as an undergraduate in Natural Sciences, and then as a PhD student in the Department of Physical Chemistry (as it was then). Brian started his research under Morris Sugden but was quickly “pinched” by Ronald Norrish because of his expertise in electronics.

Brian helped Norrish and George Porter (later Lord Porter) develop their flash photolysis units for the study of extremely fast chemical reactions, work for which Norrish and Porter later won a Nobel Prize. [Read more about their flash photolysis work in the Winter 2017 issue of Chem@Cam].  

After a sabbatical in the US, Brian returned to the department, where he continued to investigate free radicals, chemiluminescence, kinetics and spectroscopy. Using the flash photolysis method, he made the first comprehensive examination of the absorption spectra of free radicals in homogeneous explosions.

Amongst his many other research achievements, Brian developed a new method of studying hydrogen atom reactions, and determined the rate constants of a series of nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen atom reactions important in combustion and in the upper atmosphere. Brian won the Tilden Prize of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1965 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1976, subsequently becoming a Professor in this department in 1978.

Brian played a key role in bringing together the previously separate Chemistry Departments in the 1980s, as the first Head of a united Department of Chemistry.  Many alumni will remember that although both departments moved to the Lensfield Road building in the late 1950s, they remained scrupulously segregated, with Ronald Norrish leading Physical Chemistry from the West side of the building and Alexander Todd presiding over Organic and Inorganic Chemistry on the East side.  

Brian himself recounted that as early as the 1950s there had been a proposal to join the two departments, but the strong factions involved (along with the famously slow-turning wheels of university administration) meant that almost 30 years passed before this happened!

Brian’s research areas of kinetics and spectroscopy were central to the developing science of atmospheric chemistry, which had previously not been considered a separate field of research. As a Council member of NERC (the Natural Environment Research Council) Brian promoted the development of New Blood lectureships in that area, which helped to establish atmospheric science as a core field within the research councils.

Brian was also acting master at Emmanuel College for a time and the Wine Steward for many years – in addition to his many other talents, he was always good to go to for advice about wine!