'First of a new breed of science professors' and radical reformer

 

Wesley Cocker: Wesley Cocker, who died hours before his 99th birthday was a former professor of chemistry in Trinity College Dublin.

He radically reformed his department and introduced innovative research programmes at a time when the university was seriously underfunded. He came to Trinity after a successful career as an industrial and academic chemist in Britain.

He was born on January 31st, 1908, in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, where his father managed several cotton mills. The family were devout Methodists and Wesley was strongly attached to his faith during his long life. After secondary education at Accrington grammar school, he studied science at Manchester University but was especially interested in organic chemistry.

He gained a first-class degree and won a scholarship. He went on to do a PhD and worked for a while as personal assistant to his supervisor, Prof Lapworth.

He took a job at ICI Dyestuffs at Blackley where he did research on the chemical precursor of Perspex.

He then joined with his cousin, William, to set up Cocker Chemicals. They manufactured the ingredients for transforming raw rubber into tyre rubber and produced the ingredients used in Dettol.

He was still drawn to academic life and in 1937 moved to Exeter University. While there he married a mathematics teacher, Eleanor Garstang. Their daughter Katharyn was born after they moved to Newcastle University two years later.

In 1947 he was appointed to the chair of general chemistry in Trinity College and began living in Dublin, first in Raheny and later in Rathgar. The chemistry department at that period, soon after the second World War, was greatly run down and was described by another chemistry professor as "an alchemist's den" which needed complete renovation.

Prof Brian McMurry, who was a student of Cocker and later a colleague, said at his funeral service: "Wesley was the first of a new breed of science professors in the college and he brought with him a whole series of then revolutionary ideas.

"He immediately set about revising the undergraduate chemistry curriculum and introduced the latest concepts into the lecturing programme. He was a brilliant lecturer himself."

He also liked to work at the laboratory bench on experiments and continued to do so even after formal retirement.

In addition to building new laboratories and refurbishing old ones, he embarked on a vigorous research programme and introduced the research group concept. He found funding for expensive spectrometer equipment, helped bring in a single entry science course and pushed for the appointment of external examiners for undergraduate degrees and PhD oral examinations.

He was especially proud of his campaign to move the final chemistry examinations forward to June. The September date had left Trinity students at a disadvantage in job-hunting compared with their British counterparts. Gradually the rest of the science faculty and the college as a whole also moved finals to June.

He struck up a warm friendship with his fellow Methodist, Prof Ernest Walton, head of the physics department and winner of the 1951 Nobel Prize for physics.

He also had a good relationship with his opposite numbers in University College Dublin, Prof Tom Wheeler and Prof Eva Philbin, who were then close by in the old college of science in Merrion Street, now Government Buildings. Efforts to have joint lectures for students are said to have fallen foul of an episcopal ban.

Cocker also played a major role in the scientific community in Dublin and Ireland. He was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy, was a member of its council and held senior posts there.

He also held office in the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland, the Chemical Society, the Royal Institute of Chemistry and the Society of Chemical Industry.

He was a joint honorary secretary of the prestigious British Association when it met in Dublin in 1957.

He never forgot his Methodist background and was a board member of Wesley College for 23 years and founded a prize there for excellence in chemistry. He supported Fr Michael Hurley SJ when he set up the Irish School of Ecumenics in 1970 and served on its board and council.

As a Lancashire man, he continued to follow the fortunes of the county cricket team and as a former soccer player he did likewise for Manchester United. He also had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the British and Irish railway systems.

He is survived by his daughter, Katharyn, son-in-law Billy, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Wesley Cocker: born January 31st, 1908; died January 30th, 2007.