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Biography of Neil Bartlett

neil bartlett

Courtesy of Joanna Steel, Henriquez Partners Architects, Vancouver, BC

Dr. Neil Bartlett was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, in 1932. His father was a World War I veteran who had worked as a shipwright, as had four generations of his Scottish ancestors. There was little work for shipwrights during the Great Depression, so after he married Ann Vock, in 1928, they ran a grocery store. His wife financed the store with savings from her previous sales career.

Neil Bartlett was one of three children and he recalls his childhood happily. His father had suffered severe war injuries from gas during the First World War and died in 1944. Despite his death, the family did well in the grocery business. Neil and his older brother Ken ran their very own ice cream stall on their own on the weekends. This entrepreneurial endeavour allowed Neil to obtain books and equipment for his interest in chemistry.

He recalls his mother as a very able and determined woman, with an excellent head for business, who began in a national shoe-selling chain and rose to become one of their top sales people, no mean accomplishment for a woman in that era. Despite having lost her own father very young, and little formal education, she made such a success out of her grocery business that her son recalls that the family was never in financial difficulties.

The maternal branch of the family originated from Heligoland, and the first of the family to settle in England was Neil's grandfather, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Johannes Vock. During his lifetime, Heligoland was exchanged by the British Crown against Zanzibar, then under German control, and the family became, on paper at least, half German. During World War I this surname became a conversation point, and his mother changed her name to an Anglicised version, Voak.

Neil won a place at the Heaton Secondary School for Boys, having passed the eleven-plus examination, which was at that point the standard test in England to determine the scholastic ability of children and their eligibility for grammar schooling. He mentions this as "the most fortunate event in my life". From the first, there was a heavy emphasis on the sciences and hands-on experimentation in the laboratories. He also pursued his own chemical experiments at home, buying his equipment out of his pocket money and his share of the ice-cream stand, and from this interest came the academic qualifications that earned him the funding for his undergraduate degree at Kings' College, Durham.

Neil's original ambition was to become a biochemist, and following the recommendations of his teachers, he applied to study natural products chemistry. However, on further acquaintance, Neil decided that his strengths lay with inorganic chemistry, and after his graduation with a BSc in 1954, he began research in that field, in Dr. P.L. Robinson's Inorganic Chemistry Research Group. His work in this group brought him to write his thesis in early 1958. Shortly before this, on Boxing Day, 1957, Dr. Bartlett married Miss Christina Cross, in St. Nicholas's Church in Guisborough, North Yorkshire.

A few months after his thesis was completed, Neil accepted an offer to conduct research in Vancouver, British Columbia, and by the November of 1958, he and Dr. Howard C. Clark were able to officially start fluorine chemistry research at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Bartlett began work on the fluorides of the platinum metals and germanium, in which he was ably supported by undergraduate and graduate students.

However, Dr. Bartlett's personal research lay in a particularly puzzling volatile red solid, first made accidentally in his doctoral investigations, by the fluorination of platinum salts in glass containers. Eventually, in collaboration with his first doctoral student, Derek Lohmann, they showed that this was the first O2+ salt, not to mention the first PtF6- salt (later made from a mixture of PtF6 and O2). This established that the compound PtF6 was the most powerful oxidizer ever discovered. It, and other metal hexafluorides, then became a major focus of Dr. Bartlett's research.

Early in 1962, he noticed that the ionization potential of Xenon was similar to that of O2, and that that of radon was even lower. However, as experimentation on radon was at that time not a possibility, Dr. Bartlett obtained a sample of Xenon and prepared some PtF6. He then set up the dry glass and quartz apparatus for an attempt to oxidise Xenon.

Until 1962, helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon were usually known as 'inert gases', referring to the widely held belief that they would not form chemical compounds. When Dr. Bartlett, on March 23rd, 1962, broke the seal between red PtF6 gas and the Xenon gas, the gases interacted in an immediate reaction and left him with an orange solid. It was at once apparent, at least as far as Xenon was concerned, that 'inert' was inappropriate. Most unfortunately, by this time it was so late on a Friday that everyone else in the building had already left for dinner!

The historic experiment involved allowing a small sample of PtF6 to vaporise in a quartz sickle gauge, closed of by a metal valve. The pressure in the gauge was measured, and the PtF6 was transferred to a sealed tube, while Xenon was admitted to the gauge at the same pressure as the preceding PtF6 sample. The Xenon was then condensed in a neighbouring tube at -196oC, and the system closed off to limit the volume. Both the PtF6 and the Xenon were then vaporised, and allowed to mix. An orange solid was produced, and the pressure in the system measured after the reaction was low and indicated a composition XePtF6 for the orange solid. In his paper, first describing this compound, the conclusion was that it was the salt [Xe]+[PtF6]-, but subsequent work by Dr. Bartlett's group has shown it to be the salt [XeF]+[PtF5]-. In 1965, he received the Research Corporation Award for outstanding contributions to science "for his discovery that the noble gases form stable compounds."

The paper on XePtF6 sparked off a cascade of Xenon experiments elsewhere, and Argonne National Laboratory quickly made huge strides in the fluorine chemistry of Xenon. After a visit to the laboratory in the October of 1962, Dr. Bartlett decided to shift his focus to the possibility of forming an oxide of Xenon. He and his doctoral student P.R Rao quickly succeeded in isolating an oxide. But a serious accident, caused by the explosion of their second sample, put them in hospital for a month. Exact identification of the explosive solid, as XeO3, was made by others.

Dr. Bartlett firmly believes that true discoveries in science cannot be produced to order, and that limiting the allocation of funds in scientific research only to those fields with a definite, known practical application in mind, inhibits major progress in a field. He believes that scientists sought to have freedom to follow unexpected findings; exploration of the truly unknown may then ensue.

In 1966, Dr. Bartlett was offered a place as a Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University, which he accepted. He later admitted that the move away from the West Coast was not a very positive one, as despite the quality of the university itself, the climate and the surrounding cities did not make him feel at home.

In 1969, when he received an invitation from Berkeley, in California, he accepted it with some relief, and returned to the West Coast, where he has lived since then. In 1970, the American Chemical Society presented him with the Award in Inorganic Chemistry, in recognition of his continuing work in the field of the transition metal hexafluorides. He also received the Dannie-Heineman-Preis of 1971 from the German Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen in the same field of research, the Robert A. Welch Award from the USA in 1976, the Prix Henri Moissan from France in 1988, where he is a foreign associate of the Institut de France (Académie des Sciences), and the Linus Pauling Medal in 1989. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1973, and awarded the Davy Medal from that organisation in 2002 in honour of his research career.

Dr. Bartlett retired from active research with Berkeley in 1999, hoping to spend more time with his wife, his children and enjoying the hobbies and hand working that he had mostly put on hold during his research career.

He enjoys watercolour painting, carpentry, silver smithing and gardening, and on leaving active research in 1999, there was only one compound that he had never made that he would have liked to have been able to: gold hexafluoride.

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