Brilliant chemist who helped establish industry

Eva Maria Philbin: Eva Maria Philbin (Emeritus Professor of Organic Chemistry, UCD), who has died aged 91, was an outstanding…

Eva Maria Philbin: Eva Maria Philbin (Emeritus Professor of Organic Chemistry, UCD), who has died aged 91, was an outstanding chemist who made important contributions to her subject and profession.

She was born (Eva Ryder) in Ballina and educated there and at University College Galway, where she had a brilliant career culminating in a first class honours B.Sc followed by an M.Sc in 1937.

It was in University College Galway under the famous Tom Dillon that she gave early proof of her scientific mettle. She took special pride in the identification of the carbohydrates in seaweeds.

Her admiration of Tom Dillon remained throughout her career. Another scientist with whom she worked was the famous Vlado Prelog. She used to say of him that he was a man of great intelligence, who had a terrific memory, an excellent storyteller and was always the centre of conversation. She saw him as a modest person, never selfish nor boastful and around whom gathered the most brilliant collection of scientists of the day at the chemistry department at Eidenössische Technische Hochschule.


During the war years she worked as chief chemist in Hygeia Ltd in Galway and was largely responsible for developing alternative sources of chemicals required by this company but denied to them because of the war. She was very successful and showed promise at this early stage of her career of great ability, fully maturing during her later period in Dublin where she joined the department in UCD in 1945, thus beginning the most active and productive time in her career.

In difficult times for universities and especially science departments, Eva, in collaboration with Prof Wheeler, set about the development of an active research school in Natural Product Chemistry, in particular the flavonoids, substances which only recently have begun to feature in nutritional and medical promotions.

This school produced many publications in international journals and established the UCD department in the top ranks of their field. It also produced a group of post-graduate students who were to form the basis of the development of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry in Ireland and with whom Eva had exerted a most beneficial influence both academically and personally.

Eva was also a strong supporter of her profession and was a foundation member and fellow of the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland, established in 1950 and in April 1966 Eva became the first female president of the Institute of Chemistry. She was also a member of the Irish Committee of the Royal Institute of Chemistry. She was elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 1957 and for many years was an active council member and one-time senior vice-president. A Festschrift was dedicated to her in 1989 on the occasion of her 75th birthday.

With the death of Prof Wheeler in 1962, Eva took over the headship of the chemistry department in UCD which she did with great success, showing true resolve where necessary but also great understanding of staff concerns. She showed yet again the warmth of her personality by helping to set up the Wheeler Lectureship series in memory of Tom Wheeler.

The series "kicked off" with a lecture by Prof RB Woodward of Harvard University, one of the most outstanding organic chemists in the world in 1967 and a Nobel Laureate. In addition, Eva pursued a policy of developing the various branches of the department by attracting external graduates from a variety of countries. This has given the department an international flavour and academic excellence which it has maintained to this day.

The outstanding features of Eva combined academic excellence with a warm humanity and complete integrity and these qualities extended to her private life.

Jack was a most devoted husband and father and Eva, a devoted wife and mother and despite all the demands of her career, she still placed tremendous importance on her family life. In view of her personality, not surprisingly she showed concern for those less fortunate and undertook many activities on their behalf such as her involvement with people with disabilities.

She is survived by her daughters, Eimer and Deirdre, her son Liam, six grandchildren and one great grandchild.

Eva Philbin: born January 4th, 1914; died June 24th, 2005.