Desmond Cunningham (1942-2006)

[Cunningham]Des Cunningham, who died on September 18, 2006, was a Chemistry Professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway. His passing represents a loss for the chemistry and crystallographic community in Ireland. His research, (with more than 175 papers), focused principally on the synthesis and characterisation of Group 14 derivatives using Mössbauer spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction techniques, made him a key figure in the development of Inorganic chemistry in Ireland since the 1970s.

He was born on March 6, 1942 and grew up in Mountcharles in County Donegal. In his early years both music and painting competed with his interest in science. He was educated at University College Dublin where he studied synthetic inorganic chemistry (1965-1968). He did his PhD work on ‘Studies of Chromium(III) Alkoxides’ at the National University of Ireland under the supervision of W. K. Glass.

Post-doctoral research in London, in the then Northern Polytechnic, introduced Des to the chemistry of tin which became a life long interest in conjunction with Mössbauer spectroscopy. In 1971 he moved to University College Galway and established a thriving research group engaged in the study of Group 14 and transition metal complexes.

Des had a strong interest in solid state chemistry and had often dreamed of establishing a crystallography group in Ireland. In the late 1970s he spent a sabbatical year in Oklahoma, USA where he gained considerable expertise in using diffraction equipment and running a crystallography laboratory. From this experience the Crystallography Centre in Galway was established with collaboration from Patrick McArdle and Tim Higgins. Initially a Hilger & Watts Y290 4-circle diffractometer was used for data collection (from George Ferguson, University of Guelph, Canada). The positive impact of this diffractometer was immediate, driving research in new directions in synthetic and structural chemistry both in Galway and in collaboration with other Irish research institutions. Two successive HEA large equipment grants provided further funding for more modern equipment to expand research in chemical crystallography, powder diffraction and biological crystallography.

A pharmaceutical company in Ireland had a problem with a tin catalysed reaction using a process that produced the desired drug in one hour but left a tin oxide ‘mess’ that took many hours to clean up. Des and co-workers overcame the problem using inexpensive chemicals by turning the ‘mess’ into a white powder that was easier to handle. Production was tripled in all plants in which the drug was produced (which represented >20% of the companies worldwide profits). Together with coworkers he patented a superior process for coating glass with tin and other metal oxides. These very thin oxide coatings make plate glass windows and glass bottles much stronger than uncoated glass.

During his recent illness he was always optimistic and continued to involve himself in correcting theses and suggesting reactions from his hospital bed. Several fascinating compounds were synthesised by his research students and their crystal structures solved and examined by him in the days before his death.

Des thought well of everyone and he had more friends than most. The wonderful atmosphere he created with his personality, his music and his love of painting will long be remembered. He appreciated a well poured pint of stout amongst friends - a life long interest which hadn’t diminished with age. He was an excellent teacher, mentor and friend to the many students he taught as undergraduates or supervised as postgraduates as well as his colleagues and friends.

Des, a dedicated family man is survived by his wife Patsy, his daughter Aileen, his brother Conal and his sisters Shelia and Catherine.

Patrick McArdle, John Gallagher, and John McGinley