Keith J. Laidler

Born: January 3, 1916 | Liverpool, GB
Died: August 26, 2003

Keith J. Laidler discusses his childhood and education, including his time at Oxford University, where Laidler received training and undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemistry and physical chemistry, and as a graduate student in physical chemistry at Princeton University. Laidler recalls the inception and development of the transition-state theory as well as his own research. Laidler concludes his interview with recollections of several eminent chemists, including Cyril Hinshelwood, Henry Eyring, and Hugh Stott Taylor. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0002
No. of pages: 47
Minutes: 177

Interview Sessions

M. Christine King
13-14 and 18 October 1983
University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Abstract of Interview

In this interview, K. J. Laidler recalls his childhood, early education, and undergraduate days at Oxford University. He then speaks about his colleagues and teachers at Princeton University where he did graduate work. A consideration of the inception and development of the transition-state theory follows. Laidler then appraises the research that he did both with Steacie in Canada an independently at the Catholic University of America. He also comments upon the nitric oxide research of Hinshelwood and on his own recent work at the University of Ottawa. Finally, Laidler recollects the personal characteristics of several eminent chemists, among them Cyril Hinshelwood, Henry Eyring, and Hugh Stott Taylor. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1937 University of Oxford BA Chemistry
1940 Princeton University PhD Physical Chemistry
1955 University of Oxford MA Physical Chemistry
1956 University of Oxford DSc Physical Chemistry

Professional Experience

National Research Council Canada

1940 to 1942
Research Chemist

Canadian Armaments Research and Development Establishment

1942 to 1944
Science Office
1944 to 1946
Chief Science Officer and Superintendent of Physics and Math Wing

Catholic University of America

1944 to 1946
Chemistry Department

University of Ottawa

1946 to 1955
Assistant to associate professor
1955 to 1981
1961 to 1966
1962 to 1966
Vice-Dean, Faculty of Pure and Applied Science
1981 to 1984
Emeritus Professor of Chemistry

Sussex University

1966 to 1967
Commonwealth Visiting Professor


Year(s) Award

Queen's Jubilee Medal

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education

Early interests in chemistry and physics. Family and school emphasis on humanities. Sidgwick's Electronic Theory of Valency. Training in languages. The influence of Dickinson and Parton.

Student Life and Undergraduate Study at Oxford University

First impressions of Oxford and Hinshelwood. Oxonian traditions. Courses, labs, and lectures. Early work on reactions in solution. Hinshelwood as tutor and linguist. Commonwealth Fellowship.

Henry Eyring

Personality and approach to research. Contrast to Hinshelwood and Oxford.

Colleagues and Teachers at Princeton University

Eyring as a lecturer. Courses in quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, organic and inorganic chemistry. Kinetics with Hugh Taylor. Early transition-state work by Eyring and Hirschfelder. The Theory of Rate Processes.

Transition-State Theory

Reception of transition-state theory. Polanyi's and Evans' paper. Opposition to the theory by Lindemann and others. World War II.

Research during World War II

Work on free radical solutions with Steacie at the National Research Council of Canada. Ballistics and propellants at the Inspection Board of the U. K. and Canada.

The Catholic University of America and Francis O. Rice

Teaching biochemistry. Walter Moore and Hugh Hulburt. Conflicts with F. O. Rice. Rice's and Herzfeld's work on organic decompositions.

Nitric Oxide Research

Early work by Hinshelwood and Staveley. Rice's free radical interpretation. Hinshelwood's molecular mechanisms. Contributions by Laidler and Wojciechowski.

Research at the University of Ottawa

Gas phase kinetics, organic decompositions, and enzyme-catalyzed reactions. Formations of intermediates. Immobilization of enzymes. Chemical Kinetics.

Cyril Hinshelwood's Persona

Hinshelwood's linguistic and literary interests. The effects of World War II. Painting and cats.

The Effect of the Mormon Religion upon Henry Eyring

A friendly personality. Contrast of Mormonism to Princeton life. Exposure to the theatre. Problems with writing. Eyring's nationalism.

Other Kineticists

Hugh Taylor as chairman of the Princeton chemistry department. E. J. Bowen, D. L. Chapman, and J. W. Linnett. Noyes' visits to the University of Ottawa.

An Unusual Hobby: Acting

Amateur theatre in Ottawa. Lecturing as acting. Acting as compliment to an academic life.

About the Interviewer

M. Christine King

Mary Christine King was born in China and educated in Ireland. She obtained a BSc degree in chemistry from the University of London in 1968, which was followed by an MSc in polymer and fiber science (1970) and a PhD for a thesis on the hydrodynamic properties of paraffins in solution (1973), both from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. After working with Joseph Needham at Cambridge, she received a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from the Open University (1980) and thereafter worked at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the University of Ottawa, where she carried out research with Dr. Keith Laidler. King died in an automobile accident in late 1987; her recent biography E. W. R. Steacie and Science in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1989) was published posthumously.