Geoffrey Wilkinson was born in the village of Springside, c. 1.5 miles from Todmorden, West Riding, Yorkshire on 14th July, 1921. His father, Henry Wilkinson, was a painter and decorator, running a family firm. He died in the early seventies and his mother, Ruth, in the 1960s. He had a brother, John also a chemist, and a sister, Barbara, both younger than him.
Geoff attended Todmorden Grammar School. He was the School’s second Nobel Prizewinner, the first being the physicist Sir John Cockcroft for splitting the atom (Physics, 1951). They were both taught by the same physics teacher, Luke Sutcliffe. His BSc and PhD were from Imperial College, London.
Geoff went to Canada in 1942 to work on the Chalk River Project, which was a joint UK – Canada venture aimed at making a nuclear reactor, which was successful. The laboratory was directed by Sir John Cockroft. Geoff was always tickled to remember that he had shared a cabin with the spy, Alan Nunn May, on the way over to Canada.
After the war, his interest in nuclear chemistry took him to Berkeley, California, to work with Glenn Seaborg and it was there that he met his wife, Lise. They married and moved to Boston, where his two daughters, Anne (1953) and Pernille (1955) were born. Geoff often said “anyone could have sons but it takes a real man to have daughters!”. Lise was the daughter of Sven Aage Schou of Copenhagen; he was a pharmacist, and ended as Rector of Copenhagen University; his wife, Ellen (née Fjerdingstad), was a concert standard pianist, who had been orphaned young.
Geoff moved to the Chair of Inorganic Chemistry at Imperial College in 1955, remaining there until his death in September 1996. He divided his time between a flat in London and a house in Sussex.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1965, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1973 for developing organometallic chemistry and was knighted in 1975.
With thanks to Anne Hardy (née Wilkinson)