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Nyholm, Sir Ronald Sydney (1917–1971)

by Stanley E. Livingstone

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Sir Ronald Sydney Nyholm (1917-1971), professor of chemistry, was born on 29 January 1917 at Broken Hill, New South Wales, fourth of six children of Adelaide-born parents Eric Edward Nyholm (d.1932), railway shunter, and his wife Gertrude Mary, née Woods. His paternal grandfather Erik Nyholm, a coppersmith, had emigrated from Finland in 1873. Ron attended Broken Hill High School on a bursary. Dux in 1933, he won a Teachers' College scholarship to the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1938; M.Sc., 1942). In his third year he was influenced by the lectures on coordination (metal complex) chemistry given by George Burrows, who was to supervise his fourth year. Nyholm investigated iron complexes of arsines and graduated with first-class honours. Thus began his lifelong activity with arsines as ligands (compounds which bind chemically to metal ions).

After a short period in 1938 as a research chemist with the Eveready Co. (Australia) Pty Ltd in Sydney, Nyholm returned to the Department of Education. In May 1940 he was appointed teacher of chemistry at Sydney Technical College. He commenced research on platinum-metal complexes with another member of staff, Frank Dwyer. Dwyer—with his enthusiasm and experimental skills—and Nyholm—with his keen interest in coordination chemistry and experience with arsines—developed a good working relationship, and a close friendship. Between 1942 and 1947 they reported complexes of rhodium, iridium, and osmium in seventeen papers in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

In 1947 Nyholm was awarded an Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd fellowship to work with Professor (Sir) Christopher Ingold at University College, London (Ph.D., 1950; D.Sc., 1953). At the parish church, Kensington, on 6 August 1948 he married Maureen Richardson, an Australian-born nurse. Appointed to the staff of U.C.L., he worked on metal complexes of o-phenylenebisdimethylarsine; he showed that this arsine is effective in stabilizing both unusually high and unusually low oxidation states. His important discovery prompted considerable theoretical discussion and led to a search for other ligands that might behave similarly.

In 1952 Nyholm returned to Sydney as lecturer at the New South Wales University of Technology, where his effect on the inorganic chemistry department was immediate and profound. He brought fresh ideas of what he called the 'renaissance of inorganic chemistry' and stimulated a greater enthusiasm for research in coordination chemistry. He was also interested in magnetochemistry, and considerably extended knowledge in that area. Promoted associate-professor in 1953, he was president of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1954. Early in 1955 he accepted a chair of chemistry at University College, London. In only three years in Sydney he had taken coordination chemistry in Australia out of a rut: from that time this area of research has been vigorously pursued in Australia, largely due to his influence.

At U.C.L. Nyholm soon built a flourishing research group which attracted doctoral and postdoctoral students from Britain, the United States of America, Australia, India, New Zealand and elsewhere. From 1963 he was head of the department. The scope of his research widened and included most areas of the rapidly expanding field of coordination chemistry. His publications numbered 278. A 'vigorous, hard-hitting, yet witty campaigner for reform in science teaching at all levels', he was a moderator in chemistry for the University of London examinations board and chaired the Nuffield Foundation's consultative committee on O-level chemistry. As chairman of the Royal Institute of Chemistry's editorial board, he took a leading part in launching its journal, Education in Chemistry; he also served on the editorial board of Comprehensive Inorganic Chemistry (1973), which was to be published in five volumes.

A fellow (1958) of the Royal Society, Nyholm valued his Finnish ancestry and was delighted to be elected a corresponding-member (1959) of the Finska Kemistsamfundet-Suomen Kemistiseura (Chemical Society of Finland). He was a member (1967-68) of the Science Research Council, president (1967) of the Association for Scientific Education and a trustee of the British Museum. While president (1968-70) of the Chemical Society, he oversaw its amalgamation with the Faraday Society, the Royal Institute of Chemistry and the Society of Chemical Industry.

Nyholm's many honours included the Chemical Society's Corday-Morgan medal (for 1950), the H. G. Smith medal of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (1955), the medal of the R.S.N.S.W. (for 1963), the gold medal of the Societa Chimica Italiana (1968) and the 'Sigillum Magnum' medal of the University of Bologna (1969). He visited Sydney to give the first Dwyer memorial lecture for the University of New South Wales Chemical Society (1963) and to receive an honorary doctorate of science from the U.N.S.W. (1969). He was knighted in 1967.

Nyholm played cricket and was intensely interested in the game. He belonged to the Athenaeum Club. Just under middle height, with fair hair which thinned with the years, he had an infectious smile and, above all, charm. Lord Arran, provost of University College, London, said: 'Ron Nyholm never entered a room, he bubbled into it and exploded into good fellowship, mirth and happiness'. At the height of his career Sir Ronald died on 4 December 1971 in Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, from injuries received in a motorcar accident. He was cremated after a service at Hinchley Wood, Esher, Surrey, where he had lived. His wife, son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol 18, 1972, p 445
  • S. E. Livingstone, 'The contributions of David P. Mellor, Frank P. Dwyer, and Ronald S. Nyholm to coordination chemistry', in G. B. Kauffman (ed), Coordination Chemistry (Washington, 1994)
  • Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Proceedings, 39, 1972, p 320
  • , Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 105, 1972, p 54
  • A. T. Baker and S. E. Livingstone, 'The early history of coordination chemistry in Australia', Polyhedron (Oxford), 4, 1985, p 1337
  • Times (London), 29 Feb 1952, 6 Dec 1971
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 1954, 11 Nov 1955, 2 Apr 1964, 6 June 1967, 22 Aug 1969.

Citation details

Stanley E. Livingstone, 'Nyholm, Sir Ronald Sydney (1917–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nyholm-sir-ronald-sydney-11269/text20103, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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