Wisbech-born Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Harry Kroto has died aged 76

Sir Harry Kroto pictured with lower sixth form students during his visit to Wisbech Grammar School i

Sir Harry Kroto pictured with lower sixth form students during his visit to Wisbech Grammar School in 2013 - Credit: Archant

Nobel prize winning scientist Sir Harry Kroto who was born in Wisbech has died at the age of 76.

Sir Harry Kroto, who has died at the age of 76.

Sir Harry Kroto, who has died at the age of 76. - Credit: Archant

Sir Harry died on Saturday in East Sussex of Lou Gehrig’s disease - a form of motor neurone disease.

He was a friend of Wisbech Grammar School and visited his home town in June 2013 to visit the school where he talked to pupils and staff and officially opened one of the newly refurbished chemistry labs, which is now named after him.

Sir Harry, who was born Harold Krotoschiner in Wisbech in October 1939, was the son of refugees from Berlin. He and his mother Edith were moved to Bolton a year after his birth, while his father, Heinz, was interned on the Isle of Man as an ‘enemy alien.’

After the war, his father became an apprentice engineer and in 1955 opened a factory to make balloons and print faces on them. Around that time, he changed the family name, to Kroto.

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Sir Harry often worked with his father in the factory during his childhood and said the experience, along with his days playing with a Meccano engineering set, gave him the problem-solving skills needed to be a research scientist.

His fascination with chemistry and art came while he was a pupil at the Bolton School.

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He studied chemistry at the University of Sheffield, earning his undergraduate degree in 1961, and completed his Ph.D there in 1964 with a focus on spectroscopy. As a student, he divided his time between conducting experiments, playing tennis and designing covers for the student magazine, Arrows.

Sir Harry completed postdoctoral work in the United States and Canada for three years before returning to England to accept a teaching position at the University of Sussex in 1967.

He began collaborating with Dr Robert Curl and Dr Richard Smalley at Rice in 1985. In their experiments, they blasted graphite with lasers to recreate the plasma conditions found in stars and investigate carbon clusters. The discovery of the 60-carbon molecule came out of these tests.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for his part in the discovery of the new form of carbon.

He named this buckminsterfullerene, after Buckminster Fuller, the visionary architect who creator of geodesic dome-shaped buildings which closely resemble the fullerene sphere. This reflected Sir Harry’s own interest in architecture and design.

The buckyball was the third form of carbon to be found after diamonds and graphite. Sir Harry, who was knighted the same year as he one the Nobel Prize, often likened the molecule to a soccer ball (or a ‘football’ when speaking to audiences outside of the United States) with a cavity in the middle that could carry smaller molecules.

Sir Harry left Sussex in 2004 for Florida State University, where he taught and conducted research for over a decade before returning to England last year.

He was passionate about mentoring young scientists. He created educational videos through the Vega Science Trust and Florida State’s Geoset, which are online repositories of short science presentations. He also presented his buckyball workshops in Sweden, Malaysia, India, China and Japan.

Sir Harry long suspected that interstellar space was awash in buckyballs, a hunch that researchers have confirmed in recent years.

“I didn’t think I would live to see it proven to be the case,” he said in a Chemistry World video last year. “Who would have thought there were footballs all over the galaxy?”

The fullerene discovery opened a new field of nanotechnology that at one point was the subject of more than 1,000 published papers a year. The molecule has potential applications in drug delivery, computing and high-speed transportation.

In addition to his wife of 53 years, Margaret, he is survived by two sons, Stephen and David.

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