Pioneering Sydney chemist wins Welch award

1 June 2007

Professor Noel Hush
Professor Noel Hush

When he was a science undergraduate at Sydney University in the 1940s, Noel Hush wrote and sent two short papers to the Journal of Symbolic Logic hoping they would be accepted for publication. He received back two polite refusals.

"I was told my work was formally correct but unoriginal. It was then I realised, sadly, I had no talent for that beautiful subject," he says.

But logic's loss was chemistry's gain.

In May, Emeritus Professor Hush, from the School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences, became the first Australian to be chosen for the Welch Award in Chemistry. Widely recognised as one of the most prestigious international prizes for chemistry, the $US300,000 award recognises Professor Hush's lifetime achievement in theoretical chemistry.

"Much of our current worldwide research - from nanotechnology to drug design - depends strongly on the models and methods developed by Noel Hush and William Miller," said James Kinsey, chairman of the Welch Scientific Advisory Board.

Professor Hush's research career spans more than six decades. Earning a bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from Sydney, he worked at Bristol University for 16 years before returning to his alma mater in 1971.

But he attributes much of his research success to the four years he spent at Manchester University as a young chemistry lecturer.

"At the time, Manchester University was the centre for physical and theoretical chemistry in England. I was pitched immediately into an extraordinary research atmosphere where I learnt quantum chemistry from one of the leading international theoretical chemists," he explains.

At Manchester, Professor Hush began moving towards the research for which he would become famous: electron transfer and mixed valency theory.

"At the time, we knew almost nothing about the mechanism of electron transfer - essentially oxidation and reduction. No one knew at a fundamental level why these reactions happened or how to describe them," he explains.

How did it feel to be at the cutting edge? "At the time, everything in the chemistry department at Manchester was at the cutting edge, so it didn't feel surprising," he says.

But the move from Sydney to England wasn't entirely smooth. "Going from Australia in the summer to Manchester in the depths of a hard European winter was a shock. All the buildings were black with soot, and severe post-war food rationing was still in force. Rents were high, I had my fiancée with me, and I suddenly learnt academics were paid three months in arrears," he says.

Professor Hush made his most well-known research achievements in the late 1950s and early 1960s: the development of a model for electron transfer in inorganic and biological compounds. The Marcus-Hush theory allows chemists to understand reactions and test ideas and has offered considerable insight into the mechanisms of photosynthesis - the way plants use sunlight, air and water to make energy.

"I found it very exciting. It's always the case: in the end, the answer seems so obvious. It is very satisfying to not only solve a problem, but to be able to derive from the solution an essentially simple reason for the phenomenon," says Professor Hush.

In 1971, Noel Hush returned to Australia to join the University of Sydney as the Foundation Professor of Theoretical Chemistry, serving as head of the department from 1971 until 1989. He continues in active research, mainly in molecular electronics in collaboration with Professor Jeffrey Reimers in the Chemistry School.

He is an Officer of the Order of Australia, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, a Fellow of the Australian Chemical Institute and one of the few foreign members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Contact: Kate Rossmanith

Phone: 02 9351 3168