|Dr. John Thomas
Manufacturing Chemist-Scottish Dyes, Ltd.
|Dr. John Thomas (1886-1933). Photo: 1920
The untimely death of John Thomas, B.A. (Cantab.), DSc. (Wales), F.I.C., at the early age of 46, on January 18th, 1933, at Wilmslow, removed one of the outstanding figures in the renaissance of
the British dyestuffs industry.
Possessing a full share of the characteristic Celtic fervour, enthusiasm and imagination, he was eminently fitted to play a pioneer part in the difficult task of establishing in this
country the manufacture of the complicated vat dyes of the indanthrone type, the story of which was so graphically told a few years ago by Mr. James Morton in his lecture before
the Royal Society of Arts on “ Fast Dyeing and Dyes.”
Thomas was born at Harlech in 1886. Leaving school at the age of 12, he entered the employment of a mineral water manufacturer, working from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. for the princely wage of 3s. 6d.
per week. Fortunately Thomas’ talents even in those early days attracted attention, and the joint efforts of his employer and his former schoolmaster induced him to sit for a scholarship which
took him to Bannouth County School, whence he entered Aberystwyth University College. An 1851 Research Scholarship took him to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained a post-
graduate research exhibition as well as the Gordon Wigan Prize in chemistry, a University award. During this period he carried out investigations which were subsequently reported in this
Journal. Joint papers with Prof. J. J. Sudborough dealt with the addition of bromine to cinnamic acid and its esters and the addition of bromine to unsaturated compounds. Independent papers
described the isolation of the aromatic sulphinic acids ; the four stereoisomeric, optically active 2 : 4-dimethyltetrahydroquinolines ; and the separation of secondary arylamines from
In 1911 Thomas entered the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington as a research chemist in the aeronautical section, a position he relinquished the following year to join the chemical staff
of the Nobel’s Explosive Co., Ardeer. His investigations during the next few years in the delicate field of explosives outside the accepted range of stability earned the rare distinction for an
industrial investigator of academic recognition in the degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Wales.
In the meantime Mr. James Morton had already assembled at Carlisle a band of chemists and others engaged in the experimental manufacture of the complex anthraquinone vat dyes and had
succeeded in placing Alizarine Sapphirole or Solway Blue and other important colours on the market when it was decided to detach the dye manufacturing section from the textile business. At
this stage Thomas joined the newly formed Solway Dyes Company as chief chemist and his outstanding gifts and forceful personality speedily made him the accepted leader of this band of
pioneers. Throughout the next decade he played an outstanding and varied part in the many developments of the Company, including the transference of manufacture to a permanent site at
Grangemouth, the manufacture and utilisation of phthalic anhydride, and the period of intense research during the slump of 1920-1921 which proved so fruitful in later developments.
On this period of his creer Thomas' claim to fame securely rests. His scientific genius, inspired by a full share of Celtic imagination, enabled him to make outstanding contributions on the
scientific side and his part in the discovery of Caledon Jade Green, the fastest and best known colour of the indanthrone type, as well as in subsequent work on blue dyes of the anthraquinone
series, particularly in connexion with Caledon Blue RC, give him a place among the outstanding discoverers of the dyestuffs industry. The 160 English patent specifications bearing his name
testify to the fertility and ingenuity of his mind and demonstrate the value of his contribution to the scientific research which has given us the Soledon colours, the Celatene colours, analogous
with those discovered independently by the British Dyestuffs Corporation and marketed as Duranol colours, and the Solazol colours, as well as to the technique of their application in dyeing.
Included in this work was an immense amount of research concerned not only with the derivatives of benzanthrone, anthraquinone, and other polycyclic compounds which can be used directly
as dyes, but with the preparation of the intermediate compounds which in this field are frequently very complex and numerous. Some 47 English patent specifications bearing Thomas’ name
are concerned with such intermediates. The magnitude of these achievements is the more impressive when we recall that Thomas, like his colleagues, had little, if any, experience of the
problems confronting him, to which the German industry had already devoted twenty years of research.
Thomas, however, was much more than a chemist, as his rapid advance demonstrates. With the reconstitution of the Company in 1920 as Scottish Dyes Ltd., he became a director, and in 1923
managing director. Finally, when Scottish Dyes Ltd. concluded an agreement with the British Dyestuffs Corporation Ltd. and became part of the Dyestuffs Group of Imperial Chemical Industries
Ltd., Thomas was appointed joint Managing Director of the Group. To this work of development and administration he brought the gifts of a pioneer, as invaluable as his scientific genius. His
boundless energy and burning enthusiasm were infectious and inspired all his colleagues in the overcoming of the innumerable obstacles between a brilliant laboratory discovery and
successful manufacture. Once convinced of the possibility of a project, his energy, resources and determination were staggering. Indeed, he never seemed to contemplate the possibility of
failure and no difficulties daunted him in pursuit of a scheme once adopted. His retentive memory and mental agility were phenomenal and enabled him to deal with the most varied scientific ,
commercial , and administrative problems with equal success. In his endeavours to establish a great dyestuffs industry in this country Thomas was unsparing of himself as of his time, and
many of his friends will feel that his devotion has made him one of the casualties of the industry.
Besides being an outstanding figure in the British dyestuffs industry, Thomas was an important and well-known figure in chemical industry throughout Europe and America. With his talents as a
pioneer he combined a charming personality which won him a wide and deserved popularity. He had a rare gift for friendship, with a cheery word for everyone that made it a delight to meet him.
His boyish enthusiasm was endearing to many and, if it made him refreshingly direct and virile in argument, he never left any trace of rancour. One who met him for the first time during his
course at Cambridge recalls that during an introductory tour of the Cambridge laboratories, the senior student, who acted as guide, insisted that the most important sight to be seen was John
Thomas, then working as a research student in Professor Pope’s laboratory. He was then, as he always remained, a volatile, rather untidy, but lovable Welshman, with a sparkling eye and a
The versatility of his achievements on the scientific side of the dyestuffs industry in itself betrayed something Napoleonic in his mental equipment. He showed a true leader’s capacity to select
men; his eye for good men for the laboratory or works, and his ear for a loose bolt in the whirl of machinery, were rarely at fault and contributed as much as his frankness and consideration for
others to successful team work at Carlisle and Grangemouth.
Thomas was an ardently patriotic Welshman, and he rejoiced particularly in the growth and success of the young Welsh County Schools and Universities, of which he himself was one of the
first-fruits. He always spoke with a broad Welsh accent, and he included “ English ” in the space assigned to “ Foreign languages ” in his Nobel engagement form. In the strict sense he had no
hobbies, but he was a fine golfer and few things gave him greater pleasure than his election in 1931 to the captaincy of the Royal St. David’s Club, Harlech, on whose links he had once been a
Underlying his cameraderie and effervescent fun there was an element of religious feeling which revealed itself only to a few, though in his earlier days he once discoursed eloquently from the
pulpit on “ unrealised ideals.” It is the essential tragedy of his too short life that, though he was a dreamer, many of whose dreams came true, he must nevertheless have been baulked of the
fulfilment of his loftiest ideals.
Thomas was married on March 4th, 1915, to Miss Olive Morgan, and the sympathy of a wide circle of friends will be extended to his widow, the son and two daughters who survive him.
Source: R. Brightman, "John Thomas 1886-1933", J. Chem. Soc., 1934, pp. 565-567