Story: MacDiarmid, Alan Graham

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MacDiarmid, Alan Graham


Chemist, scientist

This biography, written by Paul Callaghan,  was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2011.

Early life

Alan Graham MacDiarmid, New Zealand’s third Nobel Laureate, was born in Masterton on 14 April 1927, the youngest of five children of Archibald Campbell MacDiarmid and his wife, Ruby Noel Willis Graham. Alan’s father, a marine engineer, came from New Plymouth, and the MacDiarmids were friends with Ernest Rutherford’s family, at that time living at Pungarehu on the Taranaki coast. Following a shared family holiday in 1892, Archibald recalled being impressed that 21-year-old Ernest (who was later to become New Zealand’s first Nobel Laureate) had made 28 gallons (127 litres) of rhubarb wine.

In 1923 Archibald MacDiarmid moved his family to Masterton, becoming head engineer at the Waingawa freezing works. During the economic depression of the 1930s he was unemployed, and the family moved to Lower Hutt where he found work with a petrol company.

Alan MacDiarmid spoke warmly of the closeness and love of his family and of the generosity of his parents to those less well-off. He attended Waiwhetū primary school in Lower Hutt. During this time, he had an early-morning job delivering milk on his bicycle for a local farmer. Following life-threatening pneumonia at the age of nine, he was sent to recuperate for two or three months with an older sister who lived at Kerikeri in Northland. There he attended a two-room school with mostly Māori friends. In later years, MacDiarmid would enjoy performing a haka to astonished American friends and colleagues.

Alan attended Hutt Valley High School from 1941 to 1943 and worked after school delivering the Evening Post newspaper, developing a work ethic that was to be a guiding principle throughout his life. He said of his early days, ‘It is my home life while growing up through high school, which I consider to have been the single most important factor in any success which I may have had in life. As my parents always said, “…an ‘A’ grade in a class is not a sign of success. Success is knowing that you have done your best and have exploited your God-given or gene-given abilities to the maximum extent.”’ 1


Alan MacDiarmid’s first contact with chemistry sealed his later interest in the subject. He found an old copy of his father’s chemistry textbook and reading it sparked curiosity. He then discovered a copy of The boy chemist at the Lower Hutt library, recalling years later: ‘I took it out and continually renewed it by borrowing it for over a year and carried out most of the experiments in it.’ 2. The book contained experiments which included the manufacture of hydrofluoric acid, phosphene and an array of fireworks. MacDiarmid’s sister Alice later recalled a time during the Second World War, when Guy Fawkes celebrations were banned, that her brother entertained family and neighbours with a display of his home-made pyrotechnics on the back porch.

At Hutt Valley High School Alan was always near the top of the class academically. The headmaster reported that he was a quiet, well-mannered and helpful boy who took a prominent part in the extra-curricular activities of the school, including service in the wartime Air Training Corps.

At the age of 16, after his father retired to Kerikeri on a small pension, Alan MacDiarmid left school and supported himself by taking on a part-time job as ‘lab boy’ and janitor in the chemistry department of Victoria University College, Wellington, washing dirty laboratory equipment, sweeping floors and preparing demonstration chemicals for A. D. ‘Bobbie’ Monro, the lecturer in first-year chemistry. There he took courses part-time and, after receiving his BSc in 1947, became a demonstrator in the undergraduate laboratories.

At Victoria he had a revelation which was to connect with his Nobel Prize some 50 years later. Monro asked MacDiarmid to prepare some sulphur nitride (S4N4). The bright orange crystals sufficiently attracted MacDiarmid that, when it became time to start his Masters thesis, he chose sulphur nitride chemistry, resulting in his first publication, in Nature in 1949. He said of the experience that colour continued to be one of the driving forces in his career in chemistry.

Towards the Nobel Prize

On completion of his Masters degree, MacDiarmid left New Zealand in 1950 on a Fulbright scholarship to the United States, which enabled him to complete a PhD in inorganic chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, under the supervision of Norris Hall. That first PhD concerned the rate of exchange in C-tagged complex metal cyanides. Funded by a New Zealand Shell graduate scholarship, MacDiarmid undertook a second PhD at Cambridge University, England. His thesis on silicon hydrides was supervised by H. J. Emeléus.

In Cambridge on 10 July 1954 Alan MacDiarmid married Marian Laurene Mathieu, whom he had first met at an international club dance at the University of Wisconsin. Their marriage lasted 36 years, until Marian’s death in 1990. They had four children: three girls and a boy.

After a short period at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, MacDiarmid joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. The first 20 years of his work there was on organo-silicon chemistry, for which he received the American Chemical Society Frederic Stanley Kipping Award in Silicon Chemistry in 1971.

In the 1970s he began his collaboration with University of Pennsylvania physicist Alan Heeger, who had come to MacDiarmid to ask him about a recent paper by Mortimer M. Labes on a new conductor, described by Heeger as 'ess-enn-exx' (SNX). MacDiarmid assumed Heeger meant Sn (tin), a conducting metal. Heeger replied that he meant (SN)x (sulphur nitride). MacDiarmid had made the precursor to this sulphur nitride polymer as part of his New Zealand MSc. Thus began the fruitful relationship between the physicist and the chemist that led to the development of halide addition methods for enhancing polymer conductivity, creating electron vacancies in the molecular orbital and freeing up electron transport.

The final phase of MacDiarmid’s work that led to the Nobel began with a visit to Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1975, and MacDiarmid’s meeting with Hideki Shirakawa. Shirakawa was shown MacDiarmid and Heeger’s golden sulphur nitride polymer, while MacDiarmid learned of the silvery polyacetylene accidentally formed by Shirakawa’s assistant as a result of a mistake involving excess catalyst. MacDiarmid recognised immediately that Shirakawa’s polyacetylene was probably conducting and invited him to the University of Pennsylvania so they could work together, applying the Heeger–MacDiarmid method for conductivity enhancement.

The collaboration, crucially funded through support by Ken Wynne at the Office of Naval Research, resulted in the increase of polyacetylene conductivity by over a million, making it almost as good as that of metallic copper. The conducting plastics revolution was born, but it was more than two decades before the consequences for new electronics technologies became apparent. In the 2000s conducting polymers were at the heart of flat-screen video displays, new solar cells and flexible, even wearable, electronic circuitry. In 2000 Alan MacDiarmid was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry conjointly with Alan Heeger and Hideki Shirakawa.

Nobel Prize and other awards

Before being awarded the Nobel Prize, MacDiarmid was made Blanchard Professor at the University of Pennsylvania (1988). He received the John Scott Award of the City of Philadelphia (1989) and the American Chemical Society Award in the Chemistry of Materials (1999). After the Nobel he received the ACS Nichols Medal Award in Materials Chemistry (2002), and was made a member of the US National Academy of Sciences (2002) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (2002). In 2002 he joined the University of Texas at Dallas as James Von Ehr Distinguished Professor, while maintaining his chair at the University of Pennsylvania. Institutes in New Zealand, China, Brazil, India and the United States are named after him.

Later work by MacDiarmid opened up the development of other conducting polymers such as the polyanilines. In this he was greatly assisted, following Heeger’s shift to the University of California, by a fruitful collaboration with University of Ohio physicist Arthur Epstein. MacDiarmid was enormously productive, publishing over 600 articles and gaining 25 patents during his 60 years as a scientist.

MacDiarmid was unfailingly positive and encouraging to others – especially younger scientists. He was known for his quotations and mantras, such as ‘Theories come and theories go, but the facts go on forever’, ‘Vision without funding is an hallucination’ and ‘I am a very lucky man and the harder I work the luckier I seem to be’. He and his wife regularly hosted foreign visitors at home, and held annual gatherings for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. MacDiarmid worked long hours. In his spare time he enjoyed family camping at a vacation cottage on Lake Wallenpaupack in the Pocono Mountains, in Pennsylvania, where he loved to waterski.

Connections to New Zealand

Alan MacDiarmid’s connections with New Zealand remained strong. He maintained close ties with his family. He was a supporter of New Zealand science and in Pennsylvania hosted New Zealand researchers whose interests overlapped with his own. Victoria University of Wellington recognised his achievements in advance of his Nobel success, with the award of an honorary doctorate in 1999. When the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology was formed in 2002, MacDiarmid became a mentor and, with Gayl Gentile, whom he married in Philadelphia on 5 June 2005, was a regular visitor and friend to Institute members.

Following his Nobel award, MacDiarmid became a household name. His lecture tour of New Zealand in 2001 drew capacity audiences, his storytelling ability and warm personality captivating those who heard him. More than any scientist since Ernest Rutherford, MacDiarmid raised the profile of science in his home country, showing New Zealand scientists the importance of communicating to society at large. He received the highest honours New Zealand could bestow. The Royal Society of New Zealand made him an Honorary Fellow and awarded him the Rutherford Medal in 2000, and he became a member of the Order of New Zealand in 2002. Victoria University of Wellington named a new science building, completed in 2010, after him.

Towards the end of his life MacDiarmid became ill with myelodysplastic syndrome. He died on 7 February 2007 at the age of 79, following a fall at his home in Philadelphia. He was due to fly to New Zealand later that day to attend an International Conference on Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology in Wellington.

Alan MacDiarmid was much loved by fellow scientists, and greatly admired in New Zealand, where he would extol investment in innovation, challenging people to consider whether the country would lead or follow in science and technology in the 21st century. He had the great scientist's instinct; he knew his craft, but most importantly he understood its context. He thought about the great problems facing the world and became especially interested in energy issues in his later years.

MacDiarmid communicated with clarity and style. He saw science as one of the greatest of human endeavours, carried out by people working in partnership – as he used to say, ‘Science is people.’

  1. Alan G. MacDiarmid, autobiography, (last accessed 5 April 2011). Back
  2. Alan G. MacDiarmid, autobiography (last accessed 12 May 2011). Back
How to cite this page:

Paul Callaghan. 'MacDiarmid, Alan Graham - Biography', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2011. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 January 2021)