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Dr Morrin Acheson (1925-2020)

9 July 2020

'...when the time comes I hope that I will remain in your memories for a short while like Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat. The Cat disappeared but the grin remained.' - Morrin Acheson, at his 90th birthday celebration in Basel, 25 February 2015.

The College is saddened to learn of the death of Emeritus Fellow Dr R Morrin Acheson, on 4 July 2020, at the age of 95. Morrin was associated with the College and its community for nearly 70 years. He tutored over two hundred chemistry undergraduates at Queen’s from 1953, when he was appointed to a College lectureship, and subsequently a teaching Fellowship in 1958, until his retirement in 1986.

Morrin also ran an active research laboratory in the Biochemistry Department. His main interest was heterocylic chemistry, whose structures are at the heart of many natural products as well as many pharmaceuticals. In addition to over 100 Part II and DPhil students from throughout the University, he attracted visiting scientists from around the world.

He was held in great regard by his former students and researchers for his kindness, encouragement and infectious enthusiasm. Morrin was punctilious in keeping in contact with them after they left Oxford and was indefatigable in sending letters, and later emails, congratulating them on new appointments and milestones in their careers and personal lives. They have gone on to pursue careers in accountancy, banking, the church, journalism, films and tourism, as well as paths with a more direct chemical connection. What united them was an affection for Morrin, his sense of humour and his zest for life.

Before coming to Queen’s, Morrin was an undergraduate and graduate at Magdalen, gaining a First in Natural Sciences (Chemistry) in 1946, then a BSc by research in 1947 and DPhil in 1948. He was a Medical Research Council fellow at the University of Nottingham from 1948-49 and held a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago from 1949-1950.

Morrin had very broad research interests. Although based in the Biochemstry Department, his work, by and large, was firmly rooted in organic chemistry. The main body of his work was investigating the chemistry of a highly reactive substance, dimethyl acetylene dicarboxylate, known affectionately as 'the ester' with a vast miscellany of heterocyclic compounds, starting with pyridine. His early work sought to identify the structure of the products first seen by the great German chemist, Diels. Morrin was pioneering in his use of then new spectroscopic methods particularly NMR to solve the structures. It was this work that led to the H A Iddles award for 1966/67, from the University of New Hampshire. He held the distinction of being the first recipient from outside the USA. In all he published over 220 scientific papers, of which over a third were related to addition reaction of heterocylic compounds with 'the ester'. The reaction of 'the ester' with heterocycles often produced previously unknown ring structures, which were of great interest to the pharmaceutical industry as novel drug templates. He consulted for several pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer, where one of his former pupils invented the block buster cardiovascular substance amlodipine/Norvasc®. He was also named as an inventor on several patents.

Morrin wrote two significant books. The first was a monograph on acridines, a class of heterocycles with a wide range of biological properties, from a bitter taste to use as dyes and the basis of various antimalarial drugs (1st Edn 1956, 2nd Edn 1973). The second was his text book, An Introduction to the Chemistry of Heterocyclic Compounds, (1st Edn 1960, 2nd Edn 1967, 3rd Edn, 1976; also Japanese and Spanish editions) which systematically described this rather disparate group of substances in a clear, concise and palatable form.

This latter book was dedicated 'To My BT and 3 LT’s' - a reference to his wife, Greti, and his three children, Corina, Marita and Michael. Morrin’s family was extremely important to him and he was careful to strike a balance between work and home life. He was devoted to Greti, whom he had met during his post-doctoral studies in Chicago and married in 1953. They shared a passion for dancing, which led to the establishment of the Oxford University Ballroom Dancing Club (now OU Dancesport) in 1968. He was also senior member of the OU Company of Archers.

From an early age, Morrin was an active mountaineer of some distinction. He was a member of the OU Expedition to Tehri-Garhwal in the Himalayas in the summer of 1952. On retirement to the Engadin in Switzerland he continued to climb, ski and dance. Many of his friends, including former students and researchers gathered in Basle in February 2015 to celebrate his 90th birthday.

Sadly, Greti predeceased him over 30 years ago, but Morrin remained active until a few days before his death and in active email communication with many former students. His enthusiasm and vitality will continue to be an inspiration to many.

You can find out more about Morrin’s extraordinary life in an edited version of a 'This is Your Life' style biography, presented to Morrin in Basel which includes anecdotes and reminiscences from many of his former students.

Thanks to Gordon Wright (Chemistry, 1970) for writing this account of Morrin's life.

Dr Morrin Acheson