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Scientists of Wales: John Meurig Thomas

(June 01, 2013)


Scientists of Wales: John Meurig Thomas

Sir John Meurig Thomas - portrait by David GriffithsPortrait of John Meurig Thomas by David Griffiths,
on display at the National Library of Wales - Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru
© the artist

Many years ago a standard question in quizes of General Knowledge was, What is Humphry Davy famous for? To which the answer was the Davy Lamp or Miner’s Safety Lamp. In fairness to Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) it should be noted that he accomplished much else in science. In the context of this article Davy is mentioned because he was a distinguished public presenter of science, especially at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, which is nowadays known to millions as the venue of the televised Christmas Lectures. Many very gifted scientists have occupied the position of Director of the RI, a hallmark of distinction. One of his successors in this position is the subject of this article.

John Meurig Thomas was born on 15 December 1932 in the village of Ponthenri in the Gwendraeth Valley, Carmarthenshire. He attended Llechyfedach Primary School before transferring to the Gwendraeth Valley Grammar School.

His academic potential, not to the exclusion of sporting prowess, soon became evident without being distinguished. In due time he moved to university education in Swansea where he gained a first class honours degree in chemistry in 1954 and a Ph.D in 1957. After a year working in the Atomic Energy Authority’s laboratory in Aldermaston – a frustrating experience – John Meurig took up a post as lecturer in chemistry in the university in Bangor. He spent fruitful years there before moving to Aberystwyth in 1964 as Professor of Chemistry. Here, his distinction became known throughout the scientific community. It was no surprise, but universally approved, that in 1977 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and invited to be Professor of Physical Chemistry in Cambridge University.

Sir John Meurig Thomas - Portrait by John Stanton Ward, RA 1995John Meurig Thomas - portrait by John Stanton Ward, RA 1995

Was there anything more possible? Yes, because in 1986 he was appointed to be Director of the Royal Institution, not merely on the record of his distinguished work on the chemistry of processes at the surfaces of materials, but in recognition of his way with people. His genial personality was a distinctive characteristic and his ability to communicate effectively with audiences made his selection as Director very popular.


After five years he relinquished his position at the RI, much to the surprise of many. Only later was it appreciated that this decision was related, in part at least, to the very serious illness of his wife Margaret. He was knighted in 1991. Then followed a brief period as Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales, at a time when university politics in Wales were particularly contentious and it was hoped that a steadying, experienced hand would be respected. This was not to be.


John Meurig's final official position was as Master of Peterhouse College at Cambridge University in the period 1993-2002. Here again, his hospitality and good nature endeared him to all. Now in ‘real’ retirement he continues to be in high demand all over the world.


On 28 November 2012, a rare celebration was held – the launch of a biography in Welsh of John Meurig by Ieuan Davies, also a product of the same community. The venue was Bethania Chapel where he had received much valuable ‘other’ education, as he warmly acknowledged at the event.


Neville Evans, 1 June 2013


If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012

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