Centenary Celebration of Chemist, Revolutionary and Academic – Professor Thomas P. Dillon

Professor Thomas P. Dillon teaching in, University College Galway (UCG) Photo: Honor O Brolchain
Sep 26 2019 Posted: 10:20 IST

NUI Galway’s School of Chemistry and CÚRAM, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Medical Devices, will host a celebration of the centenary of Professor Thomas Dillon on Wednesday, 2 October with attendees from all over Ireland, and beyond.

Professor Thomas P. Dillon, a former revolutionary, was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the then University College Galway (UCG) in 1919. A century later, and the scientific topics he started exploring, such as the study of carbohydrates and sugars, as well as research into Ireland’s seaweeds, are still relevant in today’s cutting-edge research that will be discussed throughout the day at the Thomas Dillon Centenary Symposium. The programme will also include a lecture from Dillon’s grandson, Professor Niall Dillon of Imperial College London. Niall is a renowned molecular biologist who is carrying out research on stem cells and early mammalian development and its relevance to cancer.

The public event will begin at 5pm, featuring stories, science and dance. To begin the evening, there will be a “Threesis” challenge, where research students will present their thesis succinctly and engagingly in only three minutes aimed especially for a lay public audience, and a ballet piece performed by Youth Ballet West inspired by Dillon’s description of the “benzene ring” and choreographed by Ester O Brolchain. A historical lecture by Professor Dillon’s granddaughter, the author Honor O Brolchain at 6 pm will tell the story of “The ‘remarkable’ Thomas P. Dillon: chemist, revolutionary and professor”.

Thomas P. Dillon, born in Co. Sligo, was working as assistant to Professor Hugh Ryan at UCD in 1912 when he met his future-wife Geraldine Plunkett, and through her Dillon met her brother Joseph Mary Plunkett and many others involved in revolutionary activities at this turbulent time in Ireland’s history. He was a member of the Irish Volunteers and acted as Chemical Advisor in the 1916 Rising. He and Geraldine were married on Easter Sunday 1916, and watched the Rising start from their window in the Imperial Hotel, O’Connell Street, where they were honeymooning. For his role working for republican candidates in the 1918 elections, Dillon was jailed in Gloucester for more than a year.

Upon his release from jail, Dillon went straight to Galway for a job interview, keen to continue his scientific career and he was appointed Professor of Chemistry in 1919, a post he held for 35 years. He was an enthusiastic teacher and wrote the first chemistry textbook in Irish. He believed Ireland should be exploiting its natural resources, and his pioneering research in the fields of alginates (polysaccharides from seaweed) gained him an international reputation. Under his stewardship, the School of Chemistry became a magnet for students, including two of the first women professors of chemistry in Ireland. When he retired in 1954, he was succeeded by his former student Proinsias S. O’Colla, establishing a tradition of research in carbohydrate and glyco-sciences, which continues at NUI Galway to this day.

As well as in the Schools of Chemistry and School of Natural Sciences, research into the role of sugars in biological processes and health is also a key component of various investigations taking place in CÚRAM, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Medical Devices. This includes development of medical devices based on polysaccharides, very much in the spirit envisaged by Dillon himself. The med-tech industry is a major employer in the Galway region, and R&D in medical devices as well as carbohydrates as renewable natural resources has and will have a large part to play in the regional economy.

Paul Murphy, Established Professor of Chemistry of NUI Galway’s School of Chemistry says: “Dillon’s foresight in trying to develop useful products from carbohydrates is just as relevant, if not even more relevant today. Aside from the relevance to health, carbohydrates are highly renewable carbon stores and will certainly have roles to play in generating chemical feedstocks for making drugs or for the production of smart materials in future years. This is potentially very important for the future of the West of Ireland given our proximity to the sea and importance of agriculture to the region.”

Honor O Brolchain, author and family historian said of her grandfather: “Referred to as ‘remarkable’ by diverse people, he was the kind of man you could, and would, ask to do anything, and he did – running an organisation, setting up a canteen, starting an Aid Fund and, in the case of Galway, enhancing and expanding a Chemistry Department, while fending off the violent extremes of the Black-and-Tans, and representing the University in 1935 in a debate on the uniting of Ireland. He was an interesting, complex and generous man.”

The event is open to the public and will take place from 5pm on Wednesday, 2 October in the ILAS Building, North Campus, NUI Galway.

Details of the programme can be found on www.dillonsymposium.wordpress.com and to register free attendance, visit: www.eventbrite.com and search for ‘Thomas Dillon’.

The event is supported by CÚRAM, and The Royal Society of Chemistry Republic of Ireland Local Section.


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