Thomas was born the son of a coalminer in the Gwendraeth Valley in South Wales, He graduated with BSc and PhD degrees in Chemistry from the University College of Swansea. From 1958, he held academic positions in the University of Wales, initially as Lecturer at Bangor and then (from 1969) as Professor at Aberystwyth. In 1978, He was appointed as Professor and Head of the Department of Physical Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, before taking up the prestigious role of Director of the Royal Institution in 1986. Subsequently, he was Master of Peterhouse, while continuing his research programme in the DFRL as an RI Professor. and later took up honorary appointments in the Department of Materials Science at the University of Cambridge and the School of Chemistry at Cardiff University.
Thomas made major contributions to many key areas of chemical and materials sciences: his early work focused on the developing field of the physical chemistry of solids and included key contributions to mineralogy; but his most significant scientific legacy will be in catalytic science, where he pioneered new techniques and systems, focusing on the development of fundamental knowledge which has allowed the optimization and development of new catalytic technologies of benefit to the economy, environment and health worldwide. Much of his work in this field was accomplished in the DFRL in the 1990s and early years of this century; and this vital area of chemical sciences will owe Sir John a lasting debt of gratitude. Thomas’s contributions to science were, however, much broader than his wide ranging research achievements: he mentored and encouraged scientists, especially younger colleagues, at key stages in their career; he showed great prescience in appreciating the significance of new developments, for example, solid-state-NMR and computation in materials chemistry; he was a passionate and eloquent advocate of the wonder and elegance of scientific knowledge and never happier than when lecturing to audiences of all ages, giving several discourse and schools lectures at the Ri, perhaps most notably, the Christmas Lectures in 1987, which he gave jointly with David Phillips. He was also fascinated by the history of science and wrote lucidly and with great insight about some of the great figures of science. As Director of the Ri in the 1980s, he was able to combine his passions for research, advocacy and the history of science. Thomas was also a patriotic Welshman who loved his native land, language and literature and indeed is celebrated in Wales not only as a scientist but as a poet.
Richard Catlow, who was Wolfson Professor from 1989 – 2006, writes:
“John Meurig Thomas was a unique and unforgettable person – passionately committed to science and to the Ri. I worked with him in the DFRL for over 15 years and am proud of the science we were able to do together. His work will be a lasting contribution to materials and catalytic science and he will be missed, remembered and honoured worldwide.”