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Professor George Whitesides: oration

Read Professor Matthew Davidson's oration on Professor George Whitesides for the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in June 2015.


Chancellor, it is my pleasure to introduce Professor George Whitesides, who is the most cited living chemist in the world and is without doubt one of the most creative and prolific scientists of the past century. His contributions to science are so wide-ranging it would be impossible to cover all of them here but, in short, his focus is on developing Chemistry (in its broadest sense) to solve problems for the benefit of society. He is particularly noted for his work in nuclear magnetic resonance, materials science, surface science, microfluidics and nanotechnology.

George Whitesides is a native of Louisville, Kentucky. His scientific foundations were laid at Harvard University and California Institute of Technology, where he gained his PhD (with John D. Roberts) in 1964. He was a member of the faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1963 until 1982, at which time he joined the Department of Chemistry at Harvard University where he is currently the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor.

It is remarkable quite how prolific George’s career has been. Taking his scientific output alone, George has authored over 1200 scientific articles, has mentored over 300 students, postdocs and visitors, and is listed as an inventor on over 130 patents. In addition, he has co-founded 12 companies which have a combined market capitalization of over $20 billion. One hapless interviewer asked George how he spent his free time. “What free time?” was the reply.

Among the numerous national and international honours and awards received throughout his career, George is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He is a recipient of the highest honour conferred by the American Chemical Society, the Priestly Medal (which is coincidentally named after Joseph Priestly who discovered oxygen only 20 miles from Bath at Bowood House).

Over many years, George has played an influential role as a policy advisor through leading roles on a wide range of national and international scientific bodies and review boards.

At the risk of being parochial, George’s influence in this arena has impacted directly on the University of Bath. In 2002, he chaired an international review of UK Chemistry, widely acknowledged as a key moment in the recent development of the subject in the UK. One recommendation was a call for UK chemistry and chemical engineering to work more closely together, which was music to our ears in Bath where precisely this multidisciplinary approach was already being practiced. Thus it was partly in response to the Whitesides Report, that in 2008 the University was awarded over £7 million to establish a Doctoral Training Centre in Sustainable Chemical Technologies, a Centre which still thrives today and will be training PhD students until at least 2023. In applying for this funding, although we had never met, I sent George an email asking him for a letter of support. To my surprise and delight, and by return, I got an enthusiastic endorsement supporting the largest injection of government funding the University had ever received at the time. I subsequently wrote thanking George for his support and his response characterizes the wry humour that underpins his achievements:

“Congratulations! Getting one of these large centers is both a curse and a blessing, but (as with babies) we’ll focus on the blessing part.”

I have since established that he was, of course, right about centres (and babies too).

George is an outstanding communicator – look up some of his TED talks on the internet. Whether he is describing a lab the size of a postage stamp, soft robots, the state of the discipline or the importance of simplicity, he does so with style, clarity and economy. Undoubtedly, this is one of the keys to his success over such a broad range of endeavors. As he puts it:

“Academics like complexity and emergence. The real world puts up with it reluctantly, but really wants simplicity…”.

In science, public service, education and commerce, he is an inspiration through his originality of thought and clarity of communication. He is both visionary and challenging and there can be no better role model and advocate for the future development of science and technology for the benefit of global society.

Chancellor, I present to you George McClelland Whitesides who is eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

Professor Matthew Davidson

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