An appreciation

PROFESSOR Norman Grassie was a prominent international polymer scientist during a large part of the latter half of the 20th century. His name was particularly associated with the area of polymer degradation and with his 200 very readable research publications and numerous books.

In 1977 he became the founding editor of the journal, Polymer Degradation and Stability which, under his guidance over the next 20 years, became a leading international monthly research publication.

Norman was born in Aberdeen on May 28, 1924. His father died soon after he was born. He was educated locally and later won a scholarship to Robert Gordon’s College. On his mother’s death in 1935, he lived with an older brother, first in Fraserburgh and then in Stornoway where he completed his secondary education at the Nicolson Institute, where he was Dux in 1941.

As a science student at Aberdeen University, he was required by the military authorities to undergo training in the University Senior Training Corps.

On becoming eligible for call-up in 1943, he was directed to complete his degree course, to continue service with the S.T.C. and to undertake tasks for the war-time Ministry of Supply. He graduated with first-class honours in Chemistry in 1945.

During his work for the Ministry, he had come into contact with those few synthetic polymers – rubbers, plastics and fibres – which had become available, but which were applied exclusively to war-related uses and were little known in civilian life.

Under working conditions these materials could be disastrously unstable and deteriorate rapidly. Improvements had been achieved in a few cases by the use of “stabilising additives”, but with little understanding of how they worked.

At the war’s end, materials like Polythene, P.V.C., Perspex and synthetic rubber were flooding the civilian market. Other new materials were also emerging. However, under the general description of “plastics”, they were receiving a reputation as inferior materials.

As such, they would never be fully accepted. Norman believed that the only possible solution to this problem was to understand the detailed chemistry of these deterioration processes and, hopefully, to devise scientifically-based methods to prevent them.

He chose to study the detailed chemical structure and degradation of poly(methyl methacrylate) – Perspex – as a PhD research topic. This work was a great success and led to considerable interest from manufacturers, who were able to apply its conclusions.

By 1950 it was widely realised that Polymer Science was going to become an important factor in post-war industrial development, yet to the best of his family’s knowledge, it was not taught in science courses in any British university.

The University of Glasgow helped rectify this by appointing Norman to a senior research fellowship, later a lectureship and finally a professorship in macromolecular chemistry. His brief was to introduce polymer chemistry into all levels of the honours chemistry course. He was also given a laboratory and sufficient funds to establish a research group from scratch.

Publications were beginning to flow in international journals and he published the first authoritative book on polymer degradation, which was translated into a number of languages and used as a text-book world wide.

Young scientists came to Glasgow from abroad to study Norman’s research methods and he, in turn, was appointed to visiting professorships in a number of prestigious overseas universities. He was also appointed to consultancies by blue-chip companies and Britain’s Aviation Ministry and the US Air Force laboratories in Ohio.

These were particularly exciting times when new lightweight and heat-resistant materials were being sought and developed to help solve the problems of high-speed and space flight.

Norman’s work also made contributions to fire retardants, carbon fibres, degradable polymers, heat and flame-resistant materials and the recycling of plastics.

Norman took early retirement from Glasgow and continued his research programme as a Senior Research Fellow, free of the burden of administrative work.

He had a substantial range of private interests. He and his wife Catherine, who pre-deceased him by six years, were well-known bridge enthusiasts; they even ran their own bridge school.

Ultimately, it was his family that meant most to him. He was the most devoted husband to his beloved Catherine. Despite her passing, he remained positive and cheerful, enjoying the company of his three children, eight grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, to whom he was an inspiration to the end.