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John H. Robertson (1923-2003)

Born in China in 1923 to missionary parents, Dr. Robertson had a distinguished undergraduate career at the U. of Edinburgh, being Class Medallist in Chemistry for three consecutive years and graduating with First Class Honours in that subject in 1944. He spent three years in industry with the ICI Explosives Div., Ayrshire, before returning to Edinburgh as the holder of a Senior Carnegie Scholarship to complete a PhD on the X-ray structure determination of strychnine hydrobromide. This work rapidly achieved an established place in chemical literature. Post-doctoral research at Pennsylvania State, USA (1950-51) and a fruitful period as Research Assistant to Dorothy Hodgkin at Oxford (1951-54), working on a structure of vitamin B-12, preceded his appointment as Brotherton Lecturer in the Dept of Inorganic and Structural Chemistry at Leeds in October 1954. He was appointed a full Lecturer in the following year, being promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1968.

Dr. Robertson was an influential, enormously liked and respected figure within the Dept of Chemistry. A clear and thoughtful lecturer, he was unfailingly approachable and courteous to students. As one of a prestigious team of X-ray crystallographers, his research work was central to the development of modern crystallographic techniques. He was responsible for the solution of several crystal structures and published extensively in the field, his output being characterized by the quality of his work and his attention to minute detail. A Chartered Chemist, Fellow of the Royal Soc. of Chemistry and Fellow of the Inst. of Physics, he was at various times Honorary Secretary of the Crystallography Group of the Inst. of Physics, Honorary Secretary of the UK Crystallographic Council and a member of the British Nat’l Committee for Crystallography. He was also instrumental in setting up the British Crystallographic Assn. Between 1964 and 1968, he served as Chair of Chemistry at the Dar-es-Salaam College of the U. of East Africa, where he was responsible for establishing new laboratories and a new curriculum, gaining a fine reputation as a teacher and administrator in the process. At Leeds, Dr. Robertson served on a number of University bodies and was an active member of the AUT and the University Staff Society.

Dr. Robertson retired from the University in September 1988. In his appreciation for the University Review at the time, John Lydon described him as a 'kindly, caring man…meticulous in those civilities we all intend, but do not always get round to… He took pains to make contact with newly arrived research students from abroad and worked hard to make them feel at home… at a deeper level, John Robertson was of the same mold and generation as other crystallographic social crusaders like Katy Lonsdale and J.D. Bernal and in his own quiet way was no less determined that the universities should be centers of tolerance and social progress… For over three decades, he was more than anyone else, the human face of the School of Chemistry.'

It was characteristic of Dr. Robertson’s generosity of spirit that, in retirement, he should have continued to look after the Departments Colvin Library, relinquishing this role only shortly before his death in January, 2003.

J. R. Gair
29 July 2009