Obituary: Prof Kevin Carroll

Boyle medal winner was acknowledged as a foremost authority in the area of molecular spectroscopy

Kevin Carroll, who was professor of optical physics at University College Dublin from 1978 until his retirement in 1990, has died aged 90.

He was a specialist in the analysis of matter using a technique known as spectroscopy, which involves the study of light or other forms of electromagnetic radiation emitted or absorbed by different forms of matter. He was an accomplished physicist and worked closely with Nobel Prize winners Gerhard Hertzberg and Robert Mulliken on the spectroscopy of diatomic molecules, especially nitrogen, which are of importance in astrophysics and atmospheric physics.

He was acknowledged as a foremost authority internationally in the area of molecular spectroscopy.

In 1970, he acquired a ruby laser which was the first high-power laser system purchased in the Republic. When the output of this laser was focused onto solids it produced an extremely hot, ionised gas or plasma. This led to something of a change of field and he and his former PhD students, Profs Eugene Kennedy and John Costello of Dublin City University and Prof Gerry O'Sullivan of UCD, were the first to develop simple short wavelength light sources based on these plasmas and apply them to studies which up to then could only be carried out at large scale Synchrotron facilities.


Prof O'Sullivan said this work has turned out to be of fundamental importance for technology and has underpinned the development of light sources for extreme ultraviolet lithography, which will be introduced worldwide in 2019 for microchip production. Thus the fundamental research initiated by Kevin Carroll in the late 1970s subsequently became critical for future microelectronics fabrication and placed UCD and Ireland in a leading position internationally in the development of this technology.

He grew up on Leinster Road, Rathmines, Dublin, the youngest of five children of Bartholomew Carroll, a small builder, and Frances Devey, a homemaker. His father had served under Eamonn Ceannt in the South Dublin Union during the 1916 Rising, was interned in Frongoch in Wales and was later interned in Ballykinlar, Co Down, during the War of Independence.

Kevin Carroll attended Synge Street Christian Brothers School from where he went on to UCD to study science. He began his postgraduate studies at the university in 1948 and obtained a PhD in 1953, having completed his research between UCD and Queen's University Belfast, where he played tennis with the poet, Philip Larkin, who was an assistant librarian there.

He moved to Canada, having won a National Research Council award, to work with Dr Gerhard Hertzberg, who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1971. Following a period in UCD from 1955 to 1960, he was invited to work at the University of Chicago with Dr Robert S Mulliken, who also became a Nobel Prize for Chemistry winner in 1966. He became associate professor of optical physics at UCD in 1966 and was appointed to the full chair in 1978.

Prof Carroll went on to become one of the leading molecular spectroscopists of his time and was awarded the prestigious Boyle Medal in 1988 for his research on molecular nitrogen and in recognition of his work in atomic and molecular spectroscopy (the medal is awarded for scientific research of exceptional merit). As well as his research work, he loved teaching and earned the respect and appreciation of generations of graduate students.

He was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) in 1960 and served two terms as its vice-president. He was also chairman of the Institute of Physics in Ireland from 1970 to 1972.

He married at the age of 65, to Mary Lu Raftery, taking relatives, friends and colleagues by surprise; on his return from his honeymoon, he told colleagues that he got married in “injury time”. Fortunately for the newlyweds, the period of injury time lasted some 25 years.

He loved music, was an accomplished pianist and president of Culwicke Choral Society; this choir sang at his funeral. He also enjoyed tennis and later golf and was a lifelong member of Elm Park Sports Club in Donnybrook.

His niece, Deirdre Carroll, said he had brilliant and inquiring mind, and he will also be remembered for his modesty and dry sense of humour. Although he had no children, he was a kind and generous uncle to all his nieces and nephews.

His wife Mary Lu died in 2015 and his siblings Frances, Máire, Leo and Jack also predeceased him. He is survived by his sisters-in-law Elizabeth Carroll and Joyce Enright, brothers-in-law Noel and Brendan Raftery, nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.