Sutton, Leslie Ernest 1906 - 1992

English; British

(1906-1992), scientist and university teacher

Leslie Ernest Sutton was born on the 22nd June 1906 in Isleworth, Middlesex, with a later move to Watford. He was educated at Watford Grammar school from 1918-1924. As an outstanding student he was awarded a scholarship to Lincoln College, Oxford, to read chemistry. After gaining a first-class degree in 1928, he started his doctoral research with his tutor N. V. Sidgwick.

A key property of the chemical bond is its electrical polarity, and Sutton spent six months with Peter Debye in Leipzig in 1929, learning how to measure it. He soon became the leading experimentalist using this technique—then almost unique in its ability to reveal the shape of molecules, and he obtained his Oxford doctorate in 1932. That same year he became a junior research fellow at Magdalen College.

In 1933-4 Sutton spent time with Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology, as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow. Pauling was developing his ideas on the quantum mechanics of chemical bonding. Sutton not only grasped the implications for his own work, but also learned to measure molecular geometry using electron diffraction. When he returned to Oxford he established an influential programme to relate molecular geometry to electronic structure, and in 1936 he became a tutor and fellow of Magdalen College. His work, recorded in nearly 150 scientific publications, was recognized by the award of British chemistry's most prestigious prizes, the Meldola medal (1932), the Harrison memorial prize (1935), and the Tilden lectureship (1940). He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1950, and became a reader in physical chemistry at Oxford in 1962. In 1973 he was made an honorary DSc of Salford University.

He experienced much personal grief. The war separated him from his American wife and their two young children, who were refugees in America. He had married Catharine Virginia Stock in Oxford on 4 August 1932, but she died on 3 February 1962, leaving three children. Rachel Ann Long, née Batten, whom he married on 20 April 1963, and with whom he had two sons, developed multiple sclerosis within a few years, and their life together, before she died on 26 May 1987.

He died at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, from heart failure on 31 October 1992