Wesley Cocker 1908 –
An appreciation by Professor T.B.H. McMurry
Department of Chemistry, Trinity College, Dublin 2
|Wesley Cocker was born in 1908 in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire. His father was in the cotton trade, and rose to becoming manager of several mills. The family were staunch Methodists, and the Methodist Church has remained a focal point in his life ever since. He went to secondary school in neighbouring Accrington at the local grammar school. His parents encouraged him to go to University, but the family finances would not cover anywhere other than the nearest – Manchester.He had developed an interest in Chemistry at secondary school, which doubled up as a Technical College in the evenings and this had good laboratory facilities for practical work. The necessity to go to Manchester was a happy choice, as the University had at that time one of the best chemistry departments in the country. The young Wesley travelled from home every day for the first two years of the course – which involved chemistry, physics and mathematics – but moved into a Hall of Residence for his third, this cutting out a long and complicated journey every day. He enjoyed his course, and was particularly attracted to organic chemistry. Here the major influence on him was Professor (later Sir) Robert Robinson whose lectures inspired him. Robinson was then at the peak of his powers, and was recognised as one of the leading organic chemists in Britain. Unfortunately, Robinson left Manchester for University College, London, as Wesley Cocker graduated (1928, with a 1st, of course, and a Graduate Scholarship), and his M.Sc. was directed by Dr. Buckhardt. He then registered for a Ph.D. working with Professor Lapworth, the second major influence on him. His subject was the addition of hydrogen cyanide on carbonyl compounds. He prepared many litres of dry hydrogen cyanide during the investigation. He has told many times of the method of determining whether the liquid hydrogen cyanide was dry or not. Pour a little on to the palm of the hand and blow on it. The hydrogen cyanide evaporated, leaving behind any water present. NOT an experiment to be repeated!!Lapworth asked Cocker to become his personal assistant, a position he occupied for a year, until he moved to ICI Dyestuffs at Blackley. He found Robinson’s lectures on dyestuffs a good background for his new job, but his main claim to fame was a preparation of methyl methacrylate, the precursor of Perspex.From ICI, he joined forces with his cousin, William (later Sir William) Cocker in setting up Cocker Chemicals, which made mercaptobenzothiazole, an ingredient which helped to convert raw rubber into tyre rubber, and chloroxylenol, the disinfectant present in Dettol. The American company, Goodyear, had discovered and patented the use of mercaptobenzothiazole, but somehow overlooked patenting in the United Kingdom. Cocker Chemicals were able to capitalise on this mistake and manufacturered it. Dettol was made by Reckitts, and eventually this firm took shares in Cocker Chemicals.But he hankered after the academic life, and moved to University College, Exeter in 1937. It was during his stay there that he married Eleanor Garstang, a mathematics teacher. From Exeter, he moved to Newcastle in 1939, where his daughter Katharyn was born.
His research there introduced him to sesquiterpene chemistry. His period there coincided with the Second World War, and he was put in charge of a fire watch group in the University, to monitor any incendiary bombs dropped nearby by the Germans. He did not see much activity, and he always claimed that this gave him lots of time in the evenings to carry out research.
He was appointed to the Chair of General Chemistry in Trinity College in 1947. The department in the College at the time was very run down and he immediately set about improving things, taking over a little used surgery museum for a senior student laboratory. It also housed graduate students. Over the years he was responsible for the replacement of the more antiquated laboratories and lecture theatres, and the refurbishment of others. This involved him in getting support for his plans within College, and then seeking funding from outside. He drew up the plans for the new laboratories and worked closely with the College architect, AIN Roberts. He visited the site regularly and his attention to detail played off in the finished product.
As well at that, he initiated a very active research programme, which included work on sesquiterpenes, including santonin, a constituent of wormwood, which was a folk medicine for the treatment of intestinal worms. He also investigated dehydrogenation reactions which sometimes produce the smelly and toxic dihydrogen selenide, and worse still, methyl hydrogen selenide! Later on, he examined the chemical constituents of a series of Irish shrubs, and, later still, the chemistry of carene, one of the constituents of American, but not European, turpentine.
Even during his busiest periods with administration, he insisted on carrying on his own research at the bench and it was common for visitors to be greeted in the laboratory as he measured a melting point, or carried out a distillation.
He was the first in Ireland to recognise the value of physical measurements in determining the molecular structure of the compounds he and his students had produced. He purchased the first ultraviolet, the first infrared, the first nuclear magnetic resonance, and the first mass spectometer in any the Republic’s chemistry departments. All of these techniques were, and are, invaluable in structural determination of compounds.
He was an inspiring and thoughtful lecturer, and managed to convey the excitement and fun that chemistry meant to him. He sprinkled his lectures with anecdotes about Robinson, Lapworth, Ingold and the other greats that he had known. His first year lectures were models of clarity, and he used demonstration experiments to illustrate his points. He encouraged students to come down and examine specimens of the chemicals he was talking about, and even to smell them!! The latter practice would certainly be discouraged nowadays for safety reasons, but in those days it was perfectly acceptable.
Within the College, he was at the forefront of radical reform. When he arrived, no department had an annual sum that it could spend on its needs. He agitated for, and succeeded in obtaining, departmental grants. Irish students were at a disadvantage over UK students in prospecting for job opportunities, as the degree examinations in Ireland were held in the autumn, while in Britain, the equivalent examinations were held in June. He persuaded the College to shift the final examinations in Chemistry to June. Initially only Chemistry held their examinations in the summer, but the other subjects in the Science Faculty soon followed, and the rest of College eventually moved to the earlier period. The College when he arrived did not employ external examiners for degree examinations or for Masters degrees. There were no oral examinations for Ph.D. candidates. He pressed for the introduction of these reforms. He really was the innovator in the College of the concept of a research team. There were many distinguished scientists within the College but they either worked individually or had one or two graduate students. Where he led, others soon followed.
He developed a very cordial relationship with Professor Tom Wheeler of University College Chemistry Department, who was trying to implement similar reforms in his College. The Department in UCD was then located in Merrion Street (now Government Buildings) and the proximity of the two departments facilitated much to-ing and fro-ing.
He played a major role in the scientific community in Dublin and Ireland. He held office in the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland, Chemical Society, Royal Institute of Chemistry, and the Society of Chemical Industry. He was an enthusiastic supported of the annual Research Student Colloquium, a meeting of all the Chemistry departments on the island, where graduate students present papers. He was joint Honorary Secretary of the British Association when it met – in Dublin in 1957, and, indeed all the envelopes containing tickets etc. for the delegates were packed in his laboratory.
Being from Lancashire, he is a great follower of Manchester United, and the County Cricket Team. The presence of a staff member from Yorkshire, Professor Pepper, led to some friendly banter in the department. As a young man he had played the organ in his local Methodist church and he has kept up an interest in the organ and choral singing. He was active in the founding of the Irish School of Ecumenics. He is very interested in railways, and could tell you all about any line, either existent or abandoned, in Ireland and Great Britain.
It was a great loss to him when his wife, Eleanor, died suddenly shortly after he retired. However, he kept up his links with the Chemistry Department, and devoted a lot of his time to carrying out experiments at the bench himself, a continuation of his practice when he was head of department.
He worked initially with Dr. Patrick Shannon, a former collaborator in Trinity, but then based in Cardiff, and then with me. At 93, his enthusiasm, meticulous attention to detail, and his ability to learn new facts remain undimmed. It has been a pleasure for me, and for those in my group to have him in our midst. Long may he remain so.