In memoriam: Celebrating the life of William A. G. (Bill) Graham

The Faculty of Science mourns the loss of esteemed chemist and beloved community member Bill Graham.

News Staff - 12 April 2021

The Department of Chemistry at the University of Alberta mourns the passing of Professor William A. G. (Bill) Graham on February 26, 2021.

Bill Graham was born in Rosetown, Saskatchewan. He enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan in 1948, carrying out summer research with Professors Thorbergur Thorvaldson and John W. T. Spinks, and received his bachelor of arts in 1952. Bill went on to earn a master of arts degree in 1953, under the direction of Thorvaldson on the mechanism of hydrolysis of calcium silicates. That year, Bill moved to Harvard University for his PhD studies, becoming the first graduate student of F. Gordon A. Stone, where he studied boron hydride chemistry and earned his PhD under Stone’s direction in 1956. 

Bill then completed a one-year postdoctoral fellowship with Anton Burg at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles and a five-year stint (1957–1962) as a project leader with Arthur B. Little Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

In 1962, Bill accepted a position as associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, University of Alberta. He remained at the U of A, teaching inorganic and organometallic chemistry and supervising a stellar research program until his retirement as a full professor in 1995. Recognizing Bill’s research talent and interpersonal skills, the Faculty of Science subsequently persuaded him to serve as Associate Dean (Research), which he did for six years following his retirement.

Influenced by his graduate and postdoc research, Bill’s original intention at the U of A was to continue working on boron group hydrides, and as a skilled glassblower he proceeded to build an elaborate vacuum line. While teaching organometallic chemistry, however, Bill discovered that research in the burgeoning field of organotransition metal chemistry was rich in possibility, and he decided to switch research fields, leaving the vacuum line to gather dust. The choice proved propitious to both Bill and the field of organometallic chemistry. 

Bill’s early work focused on metal-metal bonds between transition metals (TM) and the group 14 metals silicon/germanium/tin, and this proved to be a very fertile field. By early 1968, this subject area alone yielded 15 publications. A notable report from a related area on the photoreaction of SiCl3H with transition-metal carbonyls proved to be a powerful technique for the synthesis of TM-silyl hydrides. Although the structures of the compounds were elucidated, and unprecedented Si-H-TM interactions were identified, the nature of the precise bonding was left to modern day computational chemists to unravel. 

This was not the first-time that Bill’s synthetic genius was ahead of the prevailing accepted norms of the field. Other notable discoveries of this period included a series of non-rigid, six-coordinate iron group carbonyls exhibiting stereospecific 13CO exchange, the first monohapto-cycloheptatrienyl transition metal compounds, stepwise reduction of coordinated carbon monoxide, providing early model compounds of the Fischer-Tropsch reaction, and unsaturated dinuclear hydrido carbonyls of Re and Os by “hydrogen mediated photolysis”.

UC Berkeley. For interested readers, Bill’s personal account leading to the discovery, appeared in the Journal of Organometallic Chemistry.1 Here, he notes that a reexamination of the silane photolysis of the same Ir compound, carried out in hydrocarbon solvents in the early 1970s, revealed that the “small impurity peaks” in the IR spectra were actually those of the C-H activation products. Thinking back, Bill recalled Pasteur’s dictum that “in the field of observations, chance favors the mind that is prepared,” adding ruefully that his mind was not prepared for such an unexpected reaction at that time. 

The discovery was quickly followed by activation of the simplest hydrocarbon, methane, cleverly using fully fluorinated cyclohexane, with the strong C-F bond, as solvent. The introduction of the tris(pyrazolyl)borate ligand extended C-H activation to Rh as well, and led to increased photochemical efficiency (even under daylight condition) and mild thermal activation, and more. The area, opened up by Bill, attracted and benefitted numerous other researchers for years to come. In 2000, his paradigm shifting discovery was named by the Canadian Society for Chemistry (CSC), a “milestone of Canadian Chemistry in the 20th Century.” 

Bill’s research excellence was recognized early and attracted international attention. He was a Plenary Lecturer at IVth International Conference on Organometallic Chemistry (Bristol, 1969) and in 1970 he won the Chemical Institute of Canada’s Noranda Lecture Award. In 1987, he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and he received the Premier’s Award from the Government of Alberta in 1988. He was a Centenary Lecturer of the Royal Society of Chemistry (London) in 1987–88. In 1991, the University of Alberta awarded Bill its highest research prize—the J. Gordon Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research, and in the same year he received the E.W.R. Steacie Award of the Canadian Society for Chemistry. In 1994, he received the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) Medal, the highest award of the CIC. This was a very special honor to Bill, since Thorbergur Thorvaldson, his MSc mentor, was the first recipient of the CIC Medal, in 1951. And in 1999, Bill was awarded an honorary degree from his alma mater, the University of Saskatchewan. 

Bill equally cherished two further accolades, a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Chemistry from 1995, dedicated to Bill on the occasion of his 65th birthday and a symposium in his honour at the 91st Canadian Society for Chemistry (CSC) Conference in Edmonton in 2008, attended by the luminaries in the field of C-H activation and, more important to Bill by some of his former coworkers. The CSC “Bill Fest” concluded by a well-attended banquet, filled with reminiscences about a life well-lived. 

On a personal level, Bill was an accomplished and avid photographer. His favorite subjects were his family, landscapes, Dixieland, and jazz bands. His favorite Dixieland-jazz players included the Salt City Six and—perhaps ironically for a chemist—Miff Mole.

It is remarkable that Bill achieved an international scientific reputation while remaining a true gentleman and scholar, eager to share his findings with colleagues and other scientists. He was largely responsible for the building and rapid rise of the reputation of the Inorganic division of the Department of Chemistry and remains an inspiration for the current members of the Inorganic and Materials division. 

We mourn the passing of Bill Graham, a true gentleman chemist, and a giant in organotransition chemistry. His indelible legacy lives on.

1 William A. G. Graham, J. Organomet. Chem. 1986, 300, 81–91.