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Professor Robin Hochstrasser, B.Sc., Ph.D., D.Sc., Hon.F.R.S.E.

At our Tercentenary Graduation in July we recognised Professor Robin Hochstrasser???s outstanding and pioneering contribution to all areas of physical chemistry.

Professor Robin Hochstrasser1931 - 2013

Professor Eleanor Campbell gave the following address at a private ceremony with the family earlier in the day.

Robin Hochstrasser, who sadly passed away earlier this year, was a scientific giant within the field of Molecular Spectroscopy and one of the most esteemed and scientifically influential alumni in the long history of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh.

Although his surname might not suggest it, Robin was a local boy. His mother was Margaret Main, one of the Main Fishmongers in Morningside, and he grew up in Edinburgh. After dropping out of school at the age of 15 and gaining an education in the Edinburgh Pool Halls, Robin took private lessons and entered Heriot Watt College, graduating with a BSc in 1952.

He then moved to the University of Edinburgh and studied for a PhD on the topic of surface photochemistry, under the supervision of Mowbray Ritchie, an interesting character who had been involved with the British Secret Service during the years of the Second World War. Photochemistry remained a passion and Robin went on to make many pioneering advances in the field, especially after joining the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Today lasers are ubiquitous, they are to be found at supermarket checkouts, in CD players, laser pointers and laser printers to give just a few everyday examples. However, in the 60s, they were a very new and untried technology ??? mainly a toy for physicists.

Robin was one of the first chemists to recognise in these early days the potential of lasers to probe the structure and dynamical properties of molecules. He adapted different types of lasers for investigating molecules and in so doing opened up new areas of research. In particular, he was extremely influential in moving the field of spectroscopy from the study of small molecules in the gas phase to more complex ???real-life??? situations of condensed phase chemistry and showing, more than any other scientist, the possibility of using spectroscopy to study large biologically-relevant molecules such as proteins.

The techniques that Robin pioneered are now used in laboratories around the world and have contributed significantly to the enormous advances in our understanding of biological systems in recent decades. He is perhaps best known for his pioneering development of time-resolved spectroscopic techniques and the powerful new method of 2D-IR spectroscopy that allowed him to probe both the 3D structure and the dynamical behaviour of complex molecular systems such as the amyloid fibrils found in Alzheimer???s patients.  

There are many stories about Robin and his love, not only of chemistry, but of life in general. He was a passionate, highly creative and driven scientist who mentored many younger scientists who went on to be world leaders and even Nobel laureates in their particular specialities. He had a great sense of humour and enjoyed travelling ??? particularly in France and was very knowledgeable about food and wine. On one occasion when touring vineyards in Champagne, he was even offered the job of a champagne taster after impressing the owner with his comments.

Robin was awarded many honours throughout his long and illustrious career and I am sorry that we were just a little bit too late to award him an Honorary Degree from his alma mater in person. We are all immensely proud that his research career started at the University of Edinburgh.

Although he is one of my scientific heroes, I never had the opportunity to meet Robin in person. I was hugely looking forward to meeting him on this occasion.