Michael J.S. Dewar

Born: September 24, 1918 | Ahmednagar, IN
Died: October 10, 1997 | Gainesville, FL, US

In his oral history Michael J. Dewar describes his education and long career in chemistry, both in academia and industry. He discusses his research and colleagues at Courtalds, Ltd. , his learning physical chemistry, his work on resonance theory and molecular orbital theory, and his theoretical publications at that time. He also describes his associations with H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins, Charles A. Coulson, and Jack Roberts. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0087
No. of pages: 77
Minutes: 220

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
22 January 1991
University of Florida, Gainesville

Abstract of Interview

Michael Dewar begins this interview by recalling his family background and early childhood in India and later at boarding school in England. He describes his public school coursework and texts, and early exposure to science, and explains how financial pressures influenced his decision to attend Oxford University. Next he describes the unique chemistry course offered at Oxford at that time, his professors, lab work, the influence of the war, the graduate degree system at the University, and his early work, which included alkaloids research and theoretical organic chemistry. He discusses his research and colleagues at Courtalds, Ltd. , his learning physical chemistry, his work on resonance theory and molecular orbital theory, and his theoretical publications at that time. He also describes his associations with H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins, Charles A. Coulson, and Jack Roberts. Next Dewar recalls the events leading to his appointment as Head of the Chemistry Department at Queen Mary College, as well as the condition of the department when he arrived and his efforts to rebuild it. He also talks about several of his publications before and during the appointment at QMC, including work on resonance theory, molecular orbital theory, liquid crystals, dropwise condensation and heteroaromatics. Next Dewar discusses the factors that influenced his decision to leave England for a professorship at the University of Chicago. He describes the faculty of the department during his appointment, his teaching, and his research at that time. After reviewing his work on hyperconjugation, organomettalic semiconductors, split p orbital method, and the tropylium ion, Dewar recalls his first meeting with Norman Hackerman at the University of Texas. He discusses the effects of political problems within the University administration and the evolution of computing facilities and software there during his tenure. He describes his interest in developing techniques for theoretical calculations, and the resistance of ab initionists to these theories. Next Dewar discusses negative reception to his work on enzymes, and general resistance to new and unorthodox ideas among scientists. He ends the interview with an explanation of how his half-electron model developed and some comments on his students and colleagues over the years. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1940 University of Oxford BA
1942 University of Oxford DPhil
1943 University of Oxford MA

Professional Experience

University of Oxford

Imperial Chemical Industrial Fellow

Courtaulds, Ltd.

1945 to 1951
Research Chemist in Physical Chemistry

Queen Mary College, London

1951 to 1959
Professor of Chemistry and Head of the Department of Chemistry, University of London

University of Chicago

1959 to 1963
Professor of Chemistry

University of Texas at Austin

1963 to 1990
Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry

University of Florida

1990 to 1993
Graduate Research Professor


Year(s) Award

Harrison Howe Award, American Chemical Society


GW Wheland Medal, University of Chicago


Evans Award, Ohio State University


American Chemical Society Southwest Regional Award


Davy Medal, Royal Society of London


James Flack Norris Award, American Chemical Society


William H. Nichols Award, American Chemical Society


Auburn-G. M. Kosolapoff Award, American Chemical Society


Tetrahedron Prize for Creativity in Organic Chemistry

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education

Parents and family situation in India. Move to England. Classical education at Copthorne Boarding School. Scholarship to Winchester. School Certificate Examination. Early chemistry experiments.

College and Postgraduate Education

Chemistry major at Balliol College, Oxford University. Influence of teachers. War-related work. D.Phil. and M.A. degrees. Postgraduate work on alkaloids. Book on theoretical organic chemistry for Oxford University Press.

Courtalds Ltd. , Other Research

Physical chemist position at Courtalds. Paper on stipitatic acid. Polymerization work with C. H. Bamford. Papers on astronomy, resonance theory, and molecular orbital theory.

Queen Mary College, University of London

Professorship and Department Chair at QMC. Rejunvenation of chemistry department. Reilly Lectures at Notre Dame. Symposium on molecular rearrangement. Work on dropwise condensation. Heteroaromatic work.

University of Chicago

Dissatisfaction with England and move to United States. Professorship at University of Chicago. Book on hyperconjugation. Work on organometallic semiconductors. Split p orbital method. Work on tropylium ion.

University of Texas at Austin and University of Florida, Gainesville

Professorship at University of Texas. Funding from Welch Foundation. Problems with administration at University of Texas. Graduate Research Professorship at University of Texas. Development of software. Funding from Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Resistance to calculation methods by ab initioists. Papers on enzymes. Statistical work in Texas. Opinions on American science and publishing papers.


About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.