Neil Bartlett: the noble chemist

‘NEWCASTLE DOCTOR ROCKS CHEMICAL WORLD WITH YELLOW POWDER’ screamed ‘The Journal’ headline. It went on to say that the doctor had ‘done something which was thought to be impossible…. As a result, chemical books will have to be rewritten.’  But who was the ‘doctor’ and why have most of us never heard of him?

Beginnings

Neil Bartlett was born on 15 September 1932 at The Gables, Elswick Road, formerly a branch of the Princess Mary but by then an independent maternity hospital. His childhood home, however, was in in the east end of Newcastle.

Norman, Neil’s father, was born in Walker in 1898 of Scottish parents. In his younger days, he worked as a shipwright. He fought and was apparently gassed in the first world war and suffered from ill health for the rest of his comparatively short life. Norman’s military records don’t survive but what does is a shipping record showing that, in September 1922, describing himself as a ‘shipwright’, he set sail for the USA, giving his final destination as Philadelphia. We don’t know how long he stayed but by 1928, he was back in Newcastle and marrying Ann Willins Voak.

Ann was born in Byker in 1901. Her original surname was Vock. The place of birth of her father, William, is recorded on the 1901 census as ‘Heligoland’ and his status ‘British subject’. Between 1807 and 1890, this small island off the coast of Germany, was British owned. It had been captured from Denmark during the Napoloeonic wars and only ceded to Germany as part of a treaty in which Britain secured strategic territory in East Africa. The fact that, despite William being a British subject settled in Newcastle and married to a local woman, life became uncomfortable around the time of World War 1 is evidenced by the fact that Ann changed her surname to Voak, thought to sound less German.

With work as a shipwright on Tyneside difficult for Norman to find during the recession, the Bartletts acquired and ran a grocery and confectioner’s shop, now demolished, in Brinkburn Street. Apart from a brief period during the second world war when Neil and his brother were evacuated, the Bartletts lived in Byker throughout Neil’s childhood.

After her husband died in 1944, aged only 46, Ann continued to run the shop in order to support the family. According to Neil, she was a very determined woman with an excellent head for business who ensured that the family was never in financial difficulties and she encouraged her children also to work hard and be ambitious.

Young chemist

Neil, a bright boy, passed his eleven plus to secure a place at Heaton Secondary School for Boys (renamed Heaton Grammar after the war), which he later described as ‘the most fortunate event in my life’.  He remembered that there was a heavy emphasis on the sciences and that, from the outset, he was drawn to chemistry. One of his formative memories was of an experiment conducted in class when he was 12 years old in which he mixed a solution of colourless aqueous ammonia with blue copper sulphate in water  to produce ‘beautiful well-formed crystals’. ‘From that moment I was hooked’ he wrote later, and he longed to know why the transformation took place. His future career direction had already been determined.

Neil also recalled that he and his brother made extra pocket money by selling ice cream. With the encouragement of his mother, he spent his share of the proceeds equipping a makeshift laboratory at home. It is interesting to note that fluorine, which is used in refrigeration, was to become the focus of Neil’s research a decade or more later.

His original plan was to become a biochemist and so he obtained a scholarship to study natural products chemistry at Kings College in Newcastle, then part of the University of Durham. While he was there, his mother bought a newly built house at 1 Winchcombe Place in High Heaton, which Neil called home for six years.

He graduated in 1954 but by this time, he had realised that his strengths lay with inorganic chemistry  and it was in this field that he obtained his PhD at the same institution in 1958. By the time he obtained his doctorate, he was married to Christina Cross of Guisborough. Neil then spent a brief period teaching at The Duke’s School in Alnwick before accepting a research position in fluorine chemistry at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver.

Not so inert

Scientists had always believed that the so-called noble or inert elements: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon, all gases at room temperature, were unable to react with any other substances. Their inertness had become a basic tenet of chemistry, published in textbooks and taught in classrooms and lecture halls throughout the world.

A few had questioned this scientific orthodoxy. They included German physicist, Walter Kossel, and the American Nobel-prize winning chemist, Linus Pauling, who had both predicted that highly reactive atoms such as those of fluorine might form compounds with xenon, the heaviest of the noble elements.

During his early days at UBC, while experimenting with fluorine and platinum, Bartlett had accidentally produced a deep-red solid, the exact chemical composition of which was, at first, a mystery. Eventually, he and his research student, Derek Lohmann, realise that the fluorine and platinum had reacted with oxygen. What was unusual was that the compound contained oxygen in the form of positively charged ions, although usually oxygen has a net negative charge. Bartlett realised that the platinum and fluorine component was a more powerful oxidising agent even than oxygen and theorised that it might also be able to oxidise xenon and so show that this so called inert gas wasn’t necessarily always so.

By March 1962, Bartlett had designed a simple experiment. He set up a glass apparatus containing the platinum fluorine compound, a red gas, in one container and xenon, a colourless gas, in an adjoining container separated by a seal. This is what happened next in his own words:

‘Because my co-workers at that time (23 March 1962) were still not sufficiently experienced to help me with the glass blowing and the preparation and purification of platinum hexafluoride necessary for the experiment, I was not ready to carry it out until about 7.00pm on that Friday. When I broke the seal between the red platinum hexafluoride gas and the colourless xenon gas, there was an immediate interaction, causing an orange-yellow solid to precipitate. At once I tried to find someone with whom to share the exciting finding but it appeared that everyone had left for dinner!’

The reaction took place at room temperature ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ and was, according to Bartlett, ‘extraordinarily exhilarating’. Neil Bartlett was only 29 years old.

Neil Bartlett Copyright: University of British Columbia

It was then that the really hard work began. Bartlett was sure that he had disproved what was then considered to be a fundamental law of nature but the scientific community was sceptical. Nevertheless, the compound was soon formally identified as xenon hexafluoroplatinate, the world’s first noble gas compound. With one simple experiment, an entirely new field, noble gas chemistry, had been launched.

Now, there are many known compounds, for which applications have been found in medicine, including eye-surgery and cancer treatments; mining; space travel and manufacturing.

Accident

Early the following year, Neil Bartlett was in the news again. He and his graduate student were injured following a laboratory explosion. According to Bartlett, as they both took off their glasses to get a better look at what they thought might be the first crystals of xenon difluoride, the compound exploded. Both men spent around four weeks in hospital. Bartlett was left with damaged vision and glass was still being removed from his eye 27 years later.

Later career

Despite the momentous discovery he made so early in his career, Bartlett’s career certainly didn’t tail off. 

He stayed at the UBC for another four years before becoming professor of chemistry at Princeton University, alongside a position as a scientist at Bell Telephone Laboratories. He later said that, in retrospect, the move to the east coast of America was a mistake. He much preferred the lifestyle and climate of the west and, in 1969, he joined the University of California, Berkeley, where he stayed until his retirement. In the UK, he also served as Brotherton professor at the University of Leeds.

Bartlett is also known in the world of chemistry for his work on the stabilisation of unusually high oxidisation states of elements; his contributions towards understanding thermodynamic, structural and bonding considerations of chemical reactions; he developed novel synthetic approaches; and he discovered and characterised many new fluorine compounds and produced many new metallic graphite compounds.

Beyond the Lab

Neil and Christine had three sons and one daughter and they continued to live in California after Neil’s retirement in 1993. Neil became a naturalised US citizen in 2000. His outside interests included water colour painting, gardening and ‘walking in high country’. He died on 5 August 2008.

Recognition 

Professor Neil Bartlett’s contribution to science was recognised all over the world by honorary degrees and prizes. There are too many to list here but they include:

1962 The Corday-Morgan Medal and Prize awarded by the Chemical Society (now Royal Society of Chemistry) for that year’s most meritorious contribution to experimental chemistry;

1965 A Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement’s plaque and prize for his outstanding contribution to science;

1976 The Welch Award in Chemistry, given to encourage and reward chemical research for the benefit of mankind and one of the largest and most prestigious in chemistry;

1981 Honorary Doctor of Science, Newcastle University;

1989 The American Chemical Society Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Inorganic Chemistry;

1989 Linus Pauling Award Medal of the American Chemical Society ‘A nominee shall have made outstanding contributions to chemistry that have merited national and international recognition’;

2002 The Davy Medal awarded by the Royal Society ‘for an outstandingly important recent discovery in any branch of chemistry;

2006 His laboratory at UBC in Vancouver was dedicated an International Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society.

Professor Neil Bartlett following the designation of his lab as an International Historic Chemical Landmark

Overlooked

In fact almost the only prize missing from Professor Bartlett’s impressive CV was a Nobel Prize. Many people are astounded by his omission.

In his obituary in ‘Nature’, he was described by fellow chemist, Karl O Christe as ‘one of the foremost chemists of the twentieth century’. His obituary writer continued ‘perhaps because of his modesty and lack of interest in lobbying for honours, he did not receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry – which, in my opinion, and those of many of his peers, was clearly deserved.’ 

Christe goes on to say ‘…perhaps his most memorable traits were his humbleness, friendliness, loyalty and concern for others: Neil Bartlett was not only a brilliant scholar but a true gentleman.’

Bartlett was nominated for the Nobel prize every year between 1963 and 1970: he received one nomination in 1963, four in 1964, nine in 1965, six in 1966, six in 1967, three in 1968, ten in 1969 and six in 1970, 45 in total.

István Hargittai in a chapter entitled ‘Who did not win?’ in his book ‘The Road to Stockholm’ wrote ‘Significantly, many chemists today assume that Bartlett has won a Nobel Prize.’ 

He cites ‘the most spectacular misconception’ on the first page of the first chapter of Primo Levi’s ‘The Periodic Table’ (named by the Royal Institution of Great Britain as ‘the best science book ever’ ). It reads as follows:

‘As late as 1962 a diligent chemist after long and ingenious efforts succeeded in forcing the Alien (xenon) to combine fleetingly with extremely avid and lively fluorine, and the feat seemed so extraordinary that he was given the Nobel Prize’.

But it isn’t just the Nobel Prize. The ‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’ which is described as ‘the national record of over 60,000 men and women who shaped the history of the British Isles and of Britons worldwide, from the earliest times to the 21st century’ issued a print update including deaths up to December 2008. Professor Neil Bartlett does not appear. And, more mystifyingly still, he still doesn’t appear in the online index.

The Bartlett family home on Winchcombe Place, High Heaton from c1951

There is no commemorative plaque at his High Heaton home and he doesn’t appear on NewcastleGatehead’s Local Heroes trail, where physicist, Professor Peter Higgs, and geneticist, Professor John Burn, are the only scientists with a plaque on the Quayside.

But it’s not too late for Heaton History Group to finally give ex Heaton Grammar pupil and former High Heaton resident, Professor Neil Bartlett, a man with noble qualities, if not a Nobel prize, at least the local recognition he deserves.

Can You Help?

If you know more about Neil Bartlett or have photos or memories to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Chris Jackson with additional material by Karl Cain, both of Heaton History Group.

Sources

50 Years of Xenon Chemistry 2012 Bartlett Symposium

‘Biography of Neil Bartlett’ / College of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley

‘Neil Bartlett (1932-2008)’ / Karl O Christe, ‘Nature’ Issue 455, 182 (2008)

‘Neil Bartlett – chemist’ / Wikipedia

‘Neil Bartlett and the Reactive Nobel Gases: international historic chemical landmark’

‘Newcastle Journal’ 20 December 1962 via British Newspaper Archive

‘Nobel Prize Nominations Database’ 

 ‘The Road to Stockholm: Nobel prizes, science and scientists’ / by Istvan Hargittai; Oxford University Press; 2nd ed, 2003

Who’s Who 2007’ (Available at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil and via an online subscription)

3 thoughts on “Neil Bartlett: the noble chemist

  1. Keith Gray

    I live in Heaton and was a chemistry PhD student at Durham University in the mid nineties. Prof Bartlett worked in the same research group as I did for a few months in 1995-6 as a visiting Professor and I helped him with a few of his experiments. He was a great man. I can’t really help with his life in Heaton, but could put you in touch with people at Durham who were more closely involved in his work at that time than I was.

    Reply

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