Vale Associate Professor Michael Gallagher

Posted 3 November 2020

Associate Professor Michael John Gallagher, who died on 3 October 2020, was an admired and well respected member of the School of Chemistry at the University of New South Wales.  He was almost 85.  Mike was a Queenslander and did his undergraduate degree at the University of Queensland, followed by an MSc, on natural products, under Maurice Sutherland.  He then went to England where he completed a PhD under FG Mann in the field of organophosphorus chemistry at Cambridge University in 1962.  He was a member of Trinity College and attended Cambridge University at the same time as David Black and Graham Johnston.  Then followed two years at the Milstead Laboratory of Chemical Enzymology with Nobel Laureate Sir John Cornforth. 

Mike was appointed to the University of New South Wales in 1964 as a lecturer in the Department of Organic Chemistry.  In his first year of teaching, he was given the nickname “Smiley” by one of the students (a young lady). He was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1969 and to Associate Professor in 1978.  He retired at the end of 1996.  His field of research was organophosphorus chemistry.  He was the only academic in Australia carrying out research in this area at the time.  His Research Interests, as listed in the School of Chemistry Research Activities include an interest 'Predominantly in the fields of heterocyclic derivatives of main group elements (P, As) and in methods for generating reactive intermediates involved in the chemistry of these organometallic compounds'.  He also had interests in the stereochemistry of phosphorus compounds,31P, 1H and 13C nmr, phosphorus isosteres and the synthesis of heterocycles containing more than one phosphorus atom. Mike is the author or co-author of approximately 90 publications including a number of invited book chapters.  He spent a year of study leave at the Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, working with the leading phosphorus chemist Robert Wolf.

Bob Ryan, a friend and industrial colleague, wrote that "From an industrial perspective Michael Gallagher's expertise was highly regarded. A significant example was his solution of the field problems (flammability and polymer formation blockages) associated with a patented phosphine gas agricultural fumigant. His knowledge of phosphorus chemistry, 31P NMR analysis, expert lab skills and sampling innovations solved product and field applications issues. This agricultural phosphine gas fumigant has ongoing importance to Australian grain exports as most Australian grain is fumigated using phosphine insuring insect-free and residue-free export grain.  Results were published locally: RACI 11th Australian Analytical Conference, Hobart, 1991, and in Israel: Phosphorus, Sulfur and Silicon, 1996, Vol 111, p89. Details published include the issue of the pyrophoric white phosphorus and diphosphine, toluene extraction of impurities in high pressure liquid phosphine, the unique polymer formation reaction between phosphine and carbon dioxide in the presence of air, identification and formula of the unique polymer, and formation of the three phosphoric acids."

Mike's organisational activities included being on the editorial board of the Journal of Heteroatom Chemistry, being the Presiding Member of the Faculty of Science in the three years before his retirement, being a past President and a past Secretary of the RACI NSW Branch, and a past President of the RACI Organic Division. Mike co-authored the School history book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the School in 1999. Together with David Black and Roger Read, in 1990, Mike initiated the annual series of Southern Highlands Conferences on Heterocyclic Chemistry, now into their 30th year.  These conferences broke new ground by collecting a relatively small, but international group in a comfortable and relaxed country environment. Mike served nobly as the committee Treasurer from the outset until 2007.

Away from the bench, Mike was a committee member of the Oriental Rug Society, his interest in oriental rugs being sparked by the chemical components in the dyes.  His home had many examples hanging from the walls.  Mike was also a superb cook and host, and a connoisseur of fine wines.  His knowledge of food and wine was greatly developed by his year of study leave in Toulouse. He made an enormous contribution as a committee member of the UNSW Senior Common Room Club, when it existed at the university, and not surprisingly helped to establish an impressive wine collection.  He was, in his younger days, a very good competition squash player, and was still playing with Les Field, and Scott Kable etc. in the early part of this decade.

Mike was a pillar of Australian organic chemistry in his day, an absolute gentleman and delightful company. He will be sadly missed by his many friends, who at least will retain a legacy of even more wonderful memories.