John L. Holmes

Born: November 19, 1931 | Cricklewood (London), GB
John L. Holmes photo

John L. Holmes

John L. Holmes was born in North London, United Kingdom. World War II disrupted his education, when his school was evacuated from London to the West Country, but by Christmas 1939 Holmes had returned to London. He remained in London for the duration of the war, and vividly recalls the London Blitz. After high school, Holmes became a trainee analytical chemist at Glaxo Laboratories;while working, he pursued his education part time at Acton Technical College, eventually passing the London External BSc examination in chemistry. During graduate studies at University College London he studied thermal decomposition of alkyl iodides under the mentorship of Allan Maccoll. After earning his PhD, Holmes fulfilled his National Service requirement at the National Coal Board then took up a postdoc in Ottawa at the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada, doing photochemistry of trifluoromethyl radicals with aromatic substrates. After a frustrating two-year interlude at the University of Edinburgh, Holmes returned to Ottawa, accepting a position as assistant professor in the Chemistry Department at the University of Ottawa. He began work on the kinetics of hydrogen atom reactions, but soon found himself volunteering to take on a leadership role in the department’s nascent center for mass spectrometry. Throughout the interview, Holmes recounts his evolving research interests, his collaborations with Fred Lossing, Hans Terlouw and others, his teaching and mentoring work, as well as the changing funding climate in Canada, the growth of the University of Ottawa, his experiences at international scientific meetings, and his work as editor of Organic Mass Spectrometry. Holmes concludes the interview with a discussion of his passion for sailing.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0906
No. of pages: 160
Minutes: 340

Interview Sessions

Michael A. Grayson
12 December 2013
University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario

Abstract of Interview

John L. Holmes was born in North London, United Kingdom, the son of a civil servant and a stay-at-home mother. From an early age, Holmes was encouraged to read, write and experiment. World War II disrupted his education, when the pupils of the Westcroft School were evacuated from London to the West Country, but by Christmas 1939 Holmes had returned to London to be with his parents. He remained in London for the duration of the war, and vividly recalls the London Blitz.

A mere ‘pass’ in chemistry on his Higher School examination meant that Holmes was bound for employment, rather than university. He accepted a position as a trainee analytical chemist at Glaxo Laboratories, where he learned to assay penicillin samples and to devise new analytical methods for novel synthetic products. While working at Glaxo, he pursued his education one day and three evenings per week at Acton Technical College, eventually passing the London External BSc examination in chemistry. His score earned him admission to graduate studies at University College London. There he studied thermal decomposition of alkyl iodides under the mentorship of Allan Maccoll.

After earning his PhD, Holmes fulfilled his National Service requirement at the National Coal Board then took up a postdoc in Ottawa at the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada, doing photochemistry of trifluoromethyl radicals with aromatic substrates. It was at NRC that he met Fred Lossing and got his introduction to mass spectrometry. After a frustrating two-year interlude at the University of Edinburgh, Holmes returned to Ottawa, accepting a position as assistant professor in the Chemistry Department at the University of Ottawa, where (with the exception of sabbaticals and visiting professorships abroad) he spent the remainder of his career. He began his work at Ottawa on the kinetics of hydrogen atom reactions, but soon found himself volunteering to take on a leadership role in the department’s nascent center for mass spectrometry. Throughout the interview, Holmes recounts his evolving research interests, his collaborations with Fred Lossing, Hans Terlouw and others, his teaching and mentoring work, as well as the changing funding climate in Canada, the growth of the University of Ottawa, his experiences at international scientific meetings, and his work as editor of Organic Mass Spectrometry. Holmes concludes the interview with a discussion of his passion for sailing.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1954 University of London BSc Chemistry
1957 University of London PhD Chemistry
1983 London University DSc

Professional Experience

National Research Council Canada

1958 to 1960
Postdoctoral Fellow

University of Edinburgh

1960 to 1961
ICI Fellow
1961 to 1962
Lecturer

University of Ottawa

1962 to 1963
Assistant Professor, Chemistry Department
1965 to 1973
Associate Professor, Chemistry Department
1973 to 1997
Full Professor, Chemistry Department
1997 to 2017
Emeritus Professor

University of Ghana

1971
Nuffield Visiting Professor

University College London

1973 to 1974
Sabbatical leave

University of Utrecht

1979
Overbeek Visiting Professor
1988
Visiting Professor

University of Adelaide

1984
Distinguished Visiting Scholar

Australian National University

1984
Visiting Research Fellow
1993
Visiting Professor

University of Bern

1993
International Exchange Fellow

Honors

Year(s) Award
1970

Fellow, Chemical Institute of Canada

1980

Barringer Research Award, Spectroscopy Society of Canada

1986

Fellow, Royal Society of Canada

1988

Award for Excellence in Research, University of Ottawa

1989

Chemical Institute of Canada Medal

1990

Herzberg Award, Spectroscopy Society of Canada

1998

Life Member, British Mass Spectrometry Society

2000

F.P. Lossing Award, Canadian Society for Mass Spectrometry

2008

Fellow and Life Member, Royal Society of Chemistry

Table of Contents

Chronology
i
Abstract
iii
Interviewer Bio
iii
Family Background
1

Parents and grandparents. Early education. Preparatory and secondary school. London during the Blitz. Science education at secondary school,

Undergraduate and Graduate School
19

Examination system in the United Kingdom; employment rather than University. Trainee analytical chemist at Glaxo. Studying for BSc at Acton Technical College. Earning a second on London University’s External BSc Examination. Graduate school at University College, London. Details of Glaxo work. Chemistry department at University College under Christopher K. Ingold. Holmes’s work under Allan Maccoll.

Postgraduate Years
28

National Service requirement; work for the National Coal Board. Postdoc at the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada. E.W.R. Steacie and Ken Kutschke. Fred Lossing; introduction to mass spectrometry. Return to academic science and the United Kingdom; University of Edinburgh. Sir Edmund Hirst. Tom Cottrell.

Return to Canada
39

Keith Laidler; University of Ottawa. Interest in sports. 1950s bicycle travels in Europe. Chemistry Department relations with NRC. Working at a Catholic university; University of Ottawa’s transition to a provincial university. Experiments (and other experiences) at University of Edinburgh. First marriage. Teaching at University of Ottawa. Political and religious milieu in Canada. Work on kinetics of hydrogen atom reactions.

Establishing Mass Spectrometry at Ottawa
57

The first mass spectrometer; volunteering to be in charge. Fred McLafferty. Popularity of mass spec; hiring assistant to run samples. Servicing the instrument. Work on mass spectra of carboxylic acids; norbonyl cation. Collaborations with Hans Terlouw. Second mass spectrometer. Establishing a center; third and fourth instruments. Installation and maintenance challenges. Field ionization work on Rydberg species. Funding.

Research, Teaching, Consulting and Journal Editing
82

Collaborations with Fred Lossing and Hans Terlouw. Terlouw’s identification of ion-dipole species. Scientific meetings. Mentoring graduate students and postdocs. Growth of University of Ottawa. Grading. International students. Bilingualism. Consulting and expert witness work. Editing Organic Mass Spectrometry. Patents. NASA project. Trent University meetings. Publications and co-authors. Competitors. Favorite projects and experiences. NATO scientific meetings.

Thoughts on the Future of Chemical Research
118

Government involvement in scientific research. Climate change. Funding.

Sailing
122

Childhood interest in joining the Navy. Early sailing experiences as a young man. Sea and small boat ocean sailing around England, Europe, North America. Trans-Atlantic voyage. Judging international yacht racing. Sailing with family. Comic verse on the topic of scientific publishing.

Publication List
129
Index
156

About the Interviewer

Michael A. Grayson

Michael A. Grayson is a member of the Mass Spectrometry Research Resource at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his BS degree in physics from St. Louis University in 1963 and his MS in physics from the University of Missouri at Rolla in 1965. He is the author of over 45 papers in the scientific literature. Before joining the Research Resource, he was a staff scientist at McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratory. While completing his undergraduate and graduate education, he worked at Monsanto Company in St. Louis, where he learned the art and science of mass spectrometry. Grayson is a member of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), and has served many different positions within that organization. He has served on the Board of Trustees of CHF and is currently a member of CHF's Heritage Council. He currently pursues his interest in the history of mass spectrometry by recording oral histories, assisting in the collection of papers, and researching the early history of the field.