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Alan McLeod Sargeson (1930–2008)

by Greg Jackson and Jack Harrowfield

Alan Sargeson, 1979

Alan Sargeson, 1979

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-1098

Alan McLeod Sargeson was one of Australia’s great scientists. His death leaves bereaved his family and a wide circle of friends, national and international, and is a great loss for the world of chemistry. Born in Armidale, NSW, his father’s occupation of magistrate meant that Alan grew up in several NSW country towns through the period of the Great Depression. His parents were outstanding golfers and his two much older brothers made sure Alan had plenty of challenges. These facets of early family life perhaps explain why Alan proved to be a great sportsman (tennis, cricket and rugby union), an inveterate world traveller and an outstandingly generous and humble human being who lived life to the full.

Alan Sargeson was a Sydney graduate: BSc, BSc (Hons), DipEd, and PhD in the 1950s. In 1956, he was appointed to a Lectureship in Chemistry at the University of Adelaide, where he worked until 1958, when Francis Dwyer established the Biological Inorganic Chemistry Unit in the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the ANU. He re-joined Dwyer there and remained at the ANU thereafter (Dwyer dying unexpectedly in 1962), transferring in 1967 to the newly created Research School of Chemistry (RSC) and becoming one of its luminary figures. Alan was a major figure in a period when Australian chemistry gained worldwide recognition and renown, and when the Research School of Chemistry at the ANU, in particular, became a centre attracting eminent chemists from all over the world. Two periods of leave, influential on his career, were spent with Professor Henry Taube (Nobel laureate, 1983) at Stanford University in 1963–64, and on a Fulbright Fellowship with Professor Claus Schaffer at the University of Copenhagen in 1970.

The focus of Alan Sargeson’s chemistry, a legacy from Dwyer, was the behaviour of metal compounds (‘coordination chemistry’). A reflection of Alan’s early association with the medical world was that he would occasionally be seen to be daubed with small patches of red dye, in fact an iron complex that research, in association with the University of Melbourne, had shown to have useful bacteriocidal properties when used topically.

He was fascinated in particular by the roles of metals in biology and some of his most significant early work was concerned with the development and study of ‘biomimetic’ metal complexes work that led to a vastly improved understanding of the way many of Nature’s remarkable catalysts, metalloenzymes in particular, produce their effects. Underpinning this work were pioneering research studies on the fundamentals of chemical reaction rates and mechanisms that involve metal ions, and also research on the detailed structures that coordination compounds adopted.

The key to delving deep into the mysteries of Nature in chemistry requires a very exceptional ability to see what is required to be synthesised in the laboratory, and how to do it. Here Alan Sargeson excelled, and he also excelled in taking on the best research staff to assist him to this end. Further, more than any other chemist we know, Alan fostered the best from his research associates, and unfailingly acknowledged their contributions. In reaching the heights, he never took advantage of others but rather very publicly afforded praise for innovators in his group where this was their due. These are remarkable and rare attributes.

Perhaps his best-known research was in the area known colloquially as cage chemistry, vigorously pursued right up to his passing. This work was revolutionary in that completely unanticipated chemical events were observed for metal ions trapped inside a chemical cage. Further, he and his co-workers learned how to get them out. This work is far from finished, and already several patents have been applied for or have been successfully based on this chemistry, in medicine in particular—for example, in refined organ imaging techniques. Free cages capture metal ions readily and that property has been used to unravel aspects of Cu metabolism and storage in relation to Wilson’s disease. They also enhance the activity of certain bacteriocides, and some cage complexes act as vermicides. Most recently, one molecule has been found to inhibit the hepatitis B virus and it is currently being evaluated in that context. The late and great Rod Rickards once remarked that the thousands of slides of a dead worm that Alan used to show in seminars were in fact a slide of the same one worm that happened to die at the time the cage was applied.

During Alan’s time at both the Curtin School and at the RSC at the ANU, one of his most fruitful collaborations was that with David Buckingham, a collaboration where Alan’s incessant curiosity, his enthusiasm and his active imagination were beautifully married to a typical New Zealander’s sobriety and care. David returned to New Zealand in 1978 to pursue an independent and productive career in chemistry as a Professor at Otago University in Dunedin.

Alan’s research group in Canberra had a happy social life, including regular visits to Bramley’s Bar. Alan’s inability to tell a joke without laughing before he got to the punch line infected most of his audience with the same problem. There were also the many Cotter barbeques with steaks, red wine and cricket. Also, few in the group ever escaped being called ‘Ned’ by Alan at least once. This, we learnt, had nothing to do with Nick Dixon’s initials, NED. There are so many anecdotes about Alan. He had a couple of oldish VWs, one of which he used to deliberately park next to Arthur Birch’s huge Jag at the RSC. Again, the devil in him. This, of course, reminds us of his experiment with the Danes where they separated all isomers of Co(pn))3p+(pn = propylenediamine) on a Sephadex column three storeys high, strapped to the outside of the Chemistry Department in Copenhagen (and supposedly it took some months to run).

We noticed that Alan left the RSC every night with his briefcase so full of paper that it couldn’t be closed. Whether anything happened before he came back the following morning with the bag in the same state we don’t know, but we have our suspicions. One of us once came over to the RSC while Alan was away, supposedly to finish off a paper he had left on his desk and it took me a day of fossicking about to actually find it.

It is reported that in his early student days, Alan once cleared a pub by standing on a planted matchbox containing an ampoule of dimethyl sulfide—a chemical having roughly the pungency of a skunk. A pleasantly spirited man he was! All his family have spirit.

In Toronto in 1972, one of us had the job of ushering Alan and David Buckingham to Brice Bosnich’s apartment. Bos was in Oz at that time, and Alan was to be a speaker at the ICCC meeting. So often was Alan a keynote speaker. I was under specific instructions to not allow anyone to drink Bos’s best wine. Alan took great delight in knocking off a few and took great pleasure in telling Bos about that. After all, Alan and Bos went a long way back.

We recall the outbreak of ‘prospect’ as well. Every manuscript had to have a good half-dozen added before it could become acceptable. Alan’s other not-so-glorious contribution to the literature was to get Corey and Bailar’s k and k’ inverted so that in the end 5 and ’A had to be substituted (and perhaps for this reason he had to do penance on the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry inorganic nomenclature).

Finally, on Alan’s idiosyncrasies, he was red-green colour blind, which accounted for the ghastly bright green colour of the furniture in his office, chosen at his request. Not very helpful when working with cobalt (III) complexes, one would have thought, but Alan recognised compounds not by colour but by crystal habit! We add that Alan did like his red office furniture.

Returning to serious science, to do justice to Alan Sargeson’s chemistry would require reading his lifelong production of some 400 publications, all in peer-reviewed journals of the highest international standing. The quality of the science therein remains an inspiration for scientists around the globe. One way in which this was recognised during Alan’s career was in the award of three Honorary DSc degrees, from Sydney (1980), Copenhagen (1996) and Bordeaux (1997). Alan rarely mentioned these, but they are honours equivalent to the highest forms of public recognition. Alan was also given affectionate recognition by his colleagues, sometimes in the form of unofficial awards, one of these being given to him in 1990 by his many students of the time and which always tickled his fancy. It is a plaque essentially grumbling about his excessive overseas travel, especially while he was dean of the school. It has always been displayed prominently on his office wall.

Alan Sargeson received many lucrative offers to work overseas but refused to go because he believed that, as an Australian, his research should stay in Australia, even at a time when funding for research was being cut. This typifies Sargeson the man as much as it does Sargeson the scientist. Even the offer of a chair in his favourite foreign country, Denmark, was not sufficient to entice him to leave. His influence in forging scientific relations with Denmark did lead to him being invited to University House in 2005 to meet Crown Prince Frederick and Crown Princess Mary. When asked about Mary’s outfit, the non-fashion-conscious Alan remarked: ‘She was wearing a big hat.’

Amongst Alan’s awards formally recognising his achievements in chemistry were several highly regarded fellowships: Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute 1972; Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, 1976; Fellow of the Royal Society, 1983, the pinnacle of the man’s career; Foreign member Royal Danish Academy of Science, 1976; Foreign Associate, US National Academy of Sciences; Member of the American Academy of Science, 1997, in effect a fellowship. He was also the recipient of numerous medals, including the Dwyer medal (UNSW), 1985; Matthew Flinders medal, Australian Academy of Science, 2002; A.E. Leighton award, 2000 (the highest award of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute [RACI]); the Nyholm medal of the Dalton Division of the Royal Society of Chemistry, 1983; the John C. Bailar Medal University of Illinois, 1980; H.G. Smith medal (RACI), 1978; the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Centenary Lectureship Medal, 1992–93; the 1997 Izatt-Christensen award in macrocyclic chemistry; the Inaugural Burrows award of the RACI, 1975; American Chemical Society award for Inorganic Chemistry, 1980 (rarely given to an Australian). Quite plainly, a remarkable record.

Alan served on many important committees, notably that of the Australian Federal Government’s research funding organisation, the ARGS (later called the ARC), as the Chair for Chemistry ultimately. This was a post where he toured the nation, discussing research with chemists at all Australian universities. Alan also served his penance as Chairman of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry Committee on Inorganic Nomenclature from 1989 to 1997.

Despite this experience and his gift for the right term, he could never manage to get his other favourite word ‘catoptric’ into the peer-reviewed literature and had to remain content with ‘enantiomers’.

Alan formally retired in 1996, becoming a University Fellow and Emeritus Professor of the ANU, and being awarded the status of Distinguished Fellow of the RACI. He continued to work actively on numerous collaborations. There is now an Alan Sargeson postgraduate scholarship scheme at the ANU, initiated by the RACI and begun in 2006, an honour never before afforded to the living.

The late Nobel laureate Henry Taube said of Alan” ‘I don’t think there is anyone I like better than Alan Sargeson. So thoughtful about chemistry and very insightful. He is so very generous in his opinions of others.’ Alan Sargeson was a remarkable man and is sadly missed as both a colleague and friend.

He is survived by his wife, Marietta, his four children, Kirsten, Frank, William and Bente, and six grandchildren, Emily, Zhane, Oscar, Mary, Bronwyn and George.

* Originally published in the Canberra Times, 18 February 2009.

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Greg Jackson and Jack Harrowfield, 'Sargeson, Alan McLeod (1930–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 April 2024.

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