Trailblazing work in mass spectrometry
PROFESSOR JAMES (JIM) MORRISON, AO MASS SPECTROMETRY PIONEER 9-11-1924 - 1-2-2013
MASS SPECTROMETRY PIONEER
9-11-1924 - 1-2-2013
Jim Morrison, the foundation professor of physical chemistry at La Trobe University and father of Australian mass spectrometry, has died in Melbourne at the age of 88.
Jim was born in Scotland and received his tertiary education at the University of Glasgow between 1942 and 1948. In 1949 he, with his wife Christine, migrated to
Australia, where Jim took up an appointment as a research officer with the Australian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (later renamed CSIRO).
This led to the start of a lifelong career in mass spectrometry when Jim was asked to explore the potential for chemical research of a newly acquired CEC21102 mass spectrometer. At that time only a handful of such instruments existed worldwide, and it was only through direct negotiations between prime minister John Curtin and US president Harry Truman that a US embargo was lifted, enabling
Australia to join this new scientific field. Although chemical analysis was the major focus of Jim's initial studies, he soon recognised that mass spectrometry could also be used to study fundamental processes, such as ion formation and energy transfer. Because much of the experimental data was plagued by poor resolution, Jim drew on his previous x-ray crystallography experience to develop a novel way to improve the data quality. This mathematical process, which he coined the term "deconvolution", was first carried out manually with an adding machine but later by using CSIRAC, one of the world's first digital
computers. The technique was not embraced by many at the time but is now widely accepted and used in many fields other than mass spectrometry. For example, the Photoshop program uses deconvolution to help sharpen photographic images. In 1956, Jim spent a sabbatical period at the University of Chicago with Mark Inghram, who had worked on the Manhattan Project constructing large mass spectrometers. This was the genesis of Jim's subsequent passion for machine building. Following his return to CSIRO, Jim continued with the construction of various mass spectrometers until 1966, when he made the leap to
academia, taking up the foundation chair in physical chemistry at
Melbourne's newly established La Trobe University.
The reason for this major career change is best explained by a quote from Jim's autobiography: "It wasn't that I disliked life at CSIRO, quite the reverse - I was too happy and comfortable there. If you are born and bred in Scotland, Presbyterianism is in your bones. If life is too easy there is something wrong somewhere."
Jim quickly established a nationally outstanding mechanical workshop at La Trobe University and soon recommenced building mass spectrometers. Following the advent of mini-computers during the 1960s, and having recognised their great potential for
experimental mass spectrometry, he and John Smith in 1968 constructed one of the world's first computer-controlled gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer combinations. This magnetic sector instrument was innovative in that it had a large
laminated magnet designed to minimise eddy currents and help overcome the hysteresis effects that were a problem with fast mass scans. Such magnets are now routinely used in such instruments. One of the difficulties with developing new mass spectrometers at that time was the ability to accurately model ion trajectories. To facilitate this, Jim, together with one of his PhD students, Don McGilvery, initiated the development of what has become the industry-standard ion optics program called SIMION. In 1972, Jim was asked by David Myers, the vice-chancellor at La Trobe University, to become the master of the newly built third residential student college, named Chisholm. This was at a quite turbulent time for the university, with frequent student protests and regular occupations of offices and administration buildings taking place.
Nevertheless, Jim and Christine managed to cope with this life for six years. As he later reflected: "HG Wells had always said that science would save the world, but having to deal with a population of something like 360 people in the 18 to 21-year age group gave me a different story of what saving the world was going to be like."
Jim's original interest in fundamental ion energetics, together with his enthusiasm for building mass spectrometers, led to the construction in 1974 of a novel triple quadrupole instrument for photodissociation studies. This same mass spectrometer was used to explore its application for chemical analysis, resulting in a US patent in 1980 for what is now a very widely used analytical instrument. Jim had always had a keen interest in herbal chemistry, and in 1986, with the enthusiastic collaboration of Aboriginal tribes in the Northern Territory, became involved in an Australian bicentennial Aboriginal pharmacopoeia project. This involved mass spectral examination of a vast amount of material, resulting in the publication of a reference book in 1988. Numerous awards have recognised Jim's longstanding contributions to mass spectrometry and science. Notably, in 1964 he was elected as a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and in 1985 as a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. These were followed in 1990 by his appointment as an officer of the Order of Australia for his service to science and to education. The Morrison Medal, awarded at each Australian and New Zealand Society for Mass Spectrometry conference, was established in 1990 to honour Jim's role in the development of mass spectrometry in Australia. In 2009, he was awarded the inaugural ANZSMS Medal for his "outstanding contributions to knowledge relating directly to the exploitation, application or
development of mass spectrometry". Jim's wife, Christine, passed away in 2001. He is survived by his younger sister, three sons and five grandchildren.
Jim's passing marks the end of a remarkable career, but his many contributions to science will endure for generations to come.