John Kingston: Feisty chemist had the winning formula

Melbourne chemistry professor John Kingston.
Melbourne chemistry professor John Kingston. Photo: supplied



18-1-1937 – 16-9-2015

The establishment of La Trobe University as Melbourne's third university, with the first students enrolling in 1967, attracted academic staff who were eager to make this new venture a success. One of the foundation staff in science, Irish-born John Vincent Kingston, was a feisty sociable colleague as well as an enthusiastic teacher and researcher. He found himself in the inorganic chemistry section with five (out of seven) colleagues from Belfast. The heated discussions in corridors and pubs are well-remembered.

Kingston stayed for several years (1966-1969) before moving to the University of Jordan as professor and UNESCO expert in chemistry. In 1974 he transferred to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, as program specialist in the chemical sciences. He used this influential position to provide crucial support for the development of co-operation between Australian chemists and their counterparts in Asia, particularly South East Asia.

During the 1970s, chemistry as a science section in UNESCO (part of the S in UNESCO) was developing from its school science education origins to include higher education and research, the areas which were Kingston's responsibilities. Research and training were the central themes with an emphasis on capacity building and the development of endogenous capabilities. UNESCO provided small grants for activities such as workshops and training courses as well as contacts in the region. Projects were to be local and the benefits of that research were to be locally based. To achieve this, Kingston mobilised chemists in other countries as collaborators.

His Australian experience led him to readily engage Australian chemists in establishing and delivering programs through regional networks. The first such network, established in 1974, was the regional network for the chemistry of natural products in South East Asia. This research theme was an inspired choice, since the chemistry of extracts from plant species peculiar to a country's biodiversity provided unique opportunities for local chemists to select and control their research.

Over time, the regional network approach was extended to other regions such as South Asia and other areas of chemistry such as inorganic and analytical chemistry and, in time, training courses for instrumentation. In this way, hundreds of Australian chemists became connected and involved in research and training with their colleagues across Asia. That is a legacy indeed.

Kingston was also extremely effective in promoting collaboration among the professional chemical societies around Asia, a region that extended from Jordan in the eastern Mediterranean to Fiji in the western Pacific, Japan to the north and also south to include Australia and New Zealand. This resulted in the formation of the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies (FACS) in 1981. His ability to persuade and cajole chemists from across this diverse region was legendary. John Kingston's charm, Irish loquacity and persuasion were much in evidence, often assisted by generous supplies of Irish whiskey shared amongst the disputants. He was fond of saying, when people were squabbling over some small amount of money available from UNESCO: "It's for the needy, not the greedy." His efforts usually won the day. Now, partly through Kingston's contributions, the FACS is a mature, established trans-national network that extends across this vast region, holding biennial conferences and running a variety of projects and working groups.

Kingston was appointed in October 1991 as the head of the UNESCO regional office in New Delhi which brought him the status of ambassador. The scope of the office included 11 member states: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with programs primarily in education, science and technology. His considerable diplomatic skills were put to good use in working with such a range of governments in this diverse region. He retired from UNESCO in January 1997 returning to live in southern France.

John Kingston was born in Dublin, Ireland, where he took his B.A. and M.A. from Trinity College Dublin (1956-1961). He then moved to Australia, completing his PhD in inorganic chemistry at the University of New South Wales (1961-1965) following which he was a postdoctoral fellow (1965-1966) at Imperial College, London with Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson, a Nobel Prize-winner. Kingston and his first wife Catherine (Kay) Francis O'Connell, a teacher, had three children: Meredith, born in Melbourne, and Alex and John John, both born in Amman, where Kay died in 1973. In 1975, Kingston married Antoinette Mirles who passed away in 2012. He is survived by his three children and five grandchildren, all of whom live in France. 

 John Webb and Tom Spurling are chemistry colleagues