Norma Stoddart

Born: 12 May, 1944, in Edinburgh

Died: 12 January, 2004, in Santa Monica, California, aged 59

NORMA Stoddart was a scientist, mentor and humanist of extraordinary character and great intellectual strength. The daughter of hairdressers Fred and Rita Scholan, the young Norma was educated at the Mary Erskine School where she was an outstandingly bright all-rounder, excelling in both the arts and sciences. She was very popular with classmates and staff, and was a school prefect and the Dux and Merchant Maiden Prize winner in 1962.

She was characteristically modest about her academic achievements and never let her successes affect her caring, generous nature. She decided to read chemistry at the University of Edinburgh and graduated top of the class in 1966 with a first-class honours BSc degree. Inspired by the revolution in the molecular aspects of biology that was beginning to occur, she transferred to the medical school and obtained her PhD in 1969 with a thesis on the "Hydroxylation of Cholesterol by Rat Liver", under the supervision of the eminent steroid biochemist George Boyd. Norma was full of enthusiasm and excitement for her PhD research. She nicknamed her group, a closely-knit set who interacted well both inside and outside the laboratory, "the Boydery". Her experiences there probably sowed the seeds for the stimulating environment which characterised the group she later helped to shape.

In 1968, she married another chemist from Edinburgh, Fraser Stoddart, now professor of chemistry and director of the California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She carried out periods of postdoctoral research in endocrinology, first at Queen’s University in Canada (1968-69) and then at the University of Sheffield (1970-73). She devoted the next ten years to raising their two daughters, first in Sheffield and then in Chester, when Fraser was on secondment to ICI in Runcorn.

In 1983 Norma returned to academic life as an unpaid research associate in her husband’s chemistry research group in Sheffield (1983-91), Birmingham University (1991-98) and UCLA (1998-2003).

During these two decades, Norma played a role which has few comparisons in modern scientific life. As well as helping to produce hundreds of scientific papers on behalf of the Stoddart research group, she was their surrogate mother, organisational fulcrum and matriarch. One of the team’s hallmarks during this period was its multinational dimension. It was one of the first to tap into the wealth of intellectual talent, initially from mainland Europe but subsequently from every continent, that the freedom of movement for education and the quest for research excellence provides.

Norma found herself in loco parentis to a generation of aspiring young scientists, who thought they knew everything but, as Norma was quick to point out, they did not. She revelled in it. Her dry wit, insight, common sense and generosity of spirit contributed immensely to their emotional and academic development. She was at times a confidante, at others a counsellor. She challenged them, both scientifically and personally, but she was always their strongest pillar of support. Norma treated the research group as an extension of her family. She loved doing things for them and wanted no credit or recognition in return. She provided a home away from home to many group members, inviting those who could not return to their countries for Christmas or Easter to her home, where she provided holidays in a traditional Scottish family setting. It is no exaggeration to say she was a mentor to more than 200 research students and post-doctoral fellows who passed through the Stoddart group during this period. Today, many hold important leadership positions in academia and industry around the globe. The present members are the sixth most highly cited chemistry group in the world.

Between 1986 and 1996, she organised 14 international conferences, including the Royal Society of Chemistry International Symposium on Molecular Recognition Processes (Birmingham, 1994), which was tremendously successful and boasted in excess of 400 delegates. In this role, Norma proved as adept at handling Nobel Laureates as she was at handling the cheekiest of students. One eminent scientist, who gave her hell throughout a week-long conference because he wasn’t happy with his lecture slot, reduced her to tears - but only after she had made it to the privacy of the ladies’ room. Needless to say, he gave his lecture in the assigned slot.

Norma’s interests were by no means confined to the sciences. She loved music, art and tennis, both watching Wimbledon and playing. Whenever she found herself within reach of a good art gallery during her extensive travels, she would always make a bee-line for the Impressionist paintings. She was also a devoted parent, who was tremendously proud of her daughters, Fiona and Alison, both PhD chemists.

In 1991 Norma’s mother, Rita, developed the first signs of Parkinson’s disease and moved to be near the Stoddart family home. As the disease took hold, and despite beginning her own long-term battle with ill health, Norma increasingly tended to and cared for Rita until her death in 1998.

In 1992, Norma had been diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease she fought with extraordinary courage and fortitude for the next 12 years. Successive courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy offered temporary, but never complete, remission, allowing her to work, travel and enjoy the life she loved far beyond the normal expectancy for the disease. In 1998 the cancer became metastatic and the treatments grew progressively more fierce and painful, but she never cried and rarely even commented on her condition.

John Glaspy, the director of the Bowyer Oncology Centre at UCLA, plans to name a new scale of fatigue - the Stoddart scale - as a lasting tribute to her remarkable courage and stamina. Late last year, the secondary carcinomas reached her brain, which was more than even she could handle, and she died in January, surrounded by her family and the close friends who, in her last months, had provided her with the extraordinary tenderness and care she had once shown others.

Norma is survived by her husband, her daughters and her brother, Alan. The Norma Stoddart Prize for Academic Excellence and Outstanding Citizenship has been established in her memory at UCLA.