Obituary: Prof Alex Johnstone, academic and author in Chemistry

Professor Alex Henry Johnstone, BSc, PhD, C.Chem, FRSC, Dip R Ed, PGCE. Born: 1930. Died: 2017

Alex was born in Edinburgh and brought up in Leith. At university he studied chemistry, physics, maths, botany and biblical studies, graduating with a first-class honours degree in Chemistry from Edinburgh University. Following teacher training and National Service, he taught at George Watson’s College, Edinburgh, and later as the Principal Teacher of Chemistry at the High School of Stirling. During his time in Stirling, working with the late TI Morrison, he rewrote most of the Chemistry curriculum for schools and published five accompanying textbooks, that influenced school Chemistry teaching in Scotland for a generation. Thereafter, he had a pivotal role in introducing Sixth Year Studies in science subjects throughout Scotland. During this time, he was also a principal examiner with the Scottish Examination Board and obtained a PhD in Chemistry from Glasgow University, while continuing to run the department in Stirling.

Given his obvious academic ability, he was appointed as a Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Glasgow. Within a short period he was promoted through the posts of Senior Lecturer and Reader, to Professor in Inorganic Chemistry. He was the founding director of the Centre for Science Education, an internationally renowned centre for education research, and later founding director of the Teaching and Learning Service, that aimed to enhanced teaching skills across the university.

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In association with this, he was appointed to a new post created for him, Professor of Science Education. His work was recognised nationally and internationally, with lecture tours, and awards including the Nyholm Medal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Mellor Medal of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute and American Chemical Society Award.

His university career of almost 30 years was spent undertaking and directing research in the teaching and learning of chemistry and related subjects. He authored more than 200 research papers, eight books, and 11 invited book chapters, in addition to a wide range of other teaching materials. He was a world figure in chemistry education, giving numerous conference presentations, lecture tours and consultancies. Alex was also President of the Education Division, Royal Society of Chemistry, and Vice President, Royal Society of Chemistry, London.

Alex supervised over 80 doctoral students. The projects they undertook all fitted together coherently into a sustained programme of research with a steady flow of research publications. Most of his doctoral students came from overseas where universities and governments were supporting educational research with research scholarships. His impact was truly international and his many students still reflect fondly on their memories of a great intellect who never lost his sense of humour, and always cared for his charges. Throughout, Alex argued strongly that educational research must be undertaken by practicing teachers and related to the practicalities of teaching and learning, and for this reason he continued to teach inorganic chemistry while researching the learning of chemistry.

Outside his work, Alex possessed many interests. These included his skills in French and German, his love of walking and climbing, together with his interests in history, botany and geology. He shared his wider interests with many a student group. He loved choral singing and was also a lay-preacher in his local church, his earlier Biblical training at Edinburgh University being brought into use.

He was a brilliant, inspirational teacher, with a deep empathy for the learner, especially the struggling learner. He brought these skills into his teaching with Christian groups and large numbers benefited from the incisive clarity of his insights and his deep sense of spiritual reality and academic rigour.

As his sons, “our Dad” was just that; an unassuming, highly supportive and loving father with, what appeared to be, an abundance of time for us and his wife Martha. Although at times Martha experienced the hardships of living with a successful man who was always in demand, their 70-year relationship never faltered, such was their love for each other and devotion towards their boys. From a personal perspective, Dad’s support and encouragement for us was literally second to none through promoting our careers, personal relationships, religious beliefs and belief in humanity.

His grandchildren would testify to receiving the same level of love and attention. We loved him dearly and he will be missed by us, and by all who knew him, but of course, most of all, by Martha.

Alan & David Johnstone