John Pople

Born John Anthony Pople, October 31, 1925, in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, England; died of liver cancer, March 15, 2004, in Chicago, IL. Mathematician and chemist. Sir John A. Pople was a brilliant British mathematician who gained notoriety for being one of the first researchers to realize the role computers could play in the field of science. Pople wrote a computer program that could predict the shifting structure of molecules in chemical reactions, thus allowing scientists to study matter without labs. His program is widely used in chemical research from pharmaceuticals to plastics. For this breakthrough, Pople was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in chemistry. His work so altered the field of science that Queen Elizabeth II made him a Knight of the British Empire in 2003.

Pople (pronounced POPE-el) was born October 31, 1925, in the small English resort town of Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. His father owned a clothing shop and his mother served as a tutor to the area's wealthy families. She also worked as an Army librarian during World War I. Pople was born into a working-class family, but his parents made it known early on that they had high expectations and wanted him to do more with his life than simply take over the family business.

Pople's ambitious parents knew a solid education would be central to his success, but because Pople was from a working-class family, he was not allowed to enroll at the prep school in Burnham. Pople ended up attending school 30 miles away in Bristol. Getting there required dedication. Every day, Pople biked two miles, rode the train 25 miles, and walked another mile just to get to school. There were other impediments as well. By 1940, Britain was heavily involved in World War II and the shipping port of Bristol was frequently bombed by enemy raids. Pople passed burning buildings and unexploded bombs on his way to school. Because of the bombings, classes were held in deep underground bunkers.

By the age of 12, Pople had developed a fondness for mathematics. He rescued a calculus book from the trash and read it cover to cover. Teachers soon recognized Pople's talents and coached him at his level, helping him earn a math scholarship to Cambridge University's Trinity College in 1943. Like other gifted young men of the time, Pople was allowed to enroll in college instead of entering the army like most others. He was the first member of his family to attend college. Students with high potential, however, were pushed to finish their schooling in two years instead of the standard three so they could join radar and nuclear weapons research projects to help with the war. Pople finished the requirements for his mathematics degree in May of 1945, just as the war in Europe was ending.

Pople wanted to attend graduate school but was forced out of college by the flood of servicemen returning to the area. He took a job with the Bristol Aeroplane Company and was able to return to Cambridge in 1947 to work as a research student in mathematical sciences. He earned his doctoral degree in mathematics in 1951. During his college years, Pople took up the piano and hired Joy Bowers to instruct him. They married in 1952.

Pople worked as a research fellow and mathematics lecturer at Cambridge until 1958. That year, he became head of the physics division of England's National Physical Laboratory, located near London in Teddington. The position involved a lot of administrative work and Pople soon yearned to return to research. He quit, then traveled to the United States. In 1964, he started teaching chemical physics at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie-Mellon University. Pople spent the rest of his life in the United States but remained a British citizen.

At Carnegie, Pople concentrated his efforts on exploring the electronic structure of molecules. He wondered if there was a way to predict how they would react to one another. By the mid-1980s, he was teaching part-time at Northwestern University in Chicago and in 1993 became a full faculty member there.

Pople's years of research culminated in a computer program called Gaussian-70, which researchers can use to study matter outside of a laboratory. He released the first version of the program in the 1970s but continually revised and updated it. Pople's program has many applications. Pharmaceutical companies use it to simulate the effects of new drugs. It can also be used to examine how pollutants like Freon affect the ozone layer. "It's literally thousands of chemists worldwide who are using the results of Pople's research," Carnegie-Mellon chemistry professor Dr. Stuart W. Staley told the New York Times. "It's had a tremendous impact."

For this work, Pople received the 1998 Nobel Prize in chemistry, which he shared with Australian Walter Kohn of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Over the years, he won many other awards for his research, including the American Chemical Society's Gilbert Nerton Lewis Award in 1977, the Royal Society's Davy Medal in 1988, and the Jerusalem Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 1992. Pople became a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1961 and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971. In 1993, he became a corresponding member of the Australian Academy of Sciences.

Pople died of liver cancer on March 15, 2004, in Chicago; he was 78. Pople is survived by his daughter, Hilary; his sons Adrian, Mark, and Andrew; eleven grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter. His wife died of cancer in 2002.


Chicago Tribune, March 19, 2004, sec. 1, p. 9.

Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2004, p. B21.

New York Times, March 18, 2004, p. C17.

Times (London), March 24, 2004, p. 29.

—Lisa Frick

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