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In Memoriam: Professor William J. Leigh (1953-2024) 

It is with shock and sadness that we convey the news that Professor William (Willie) Leigh passed away unexpectedly after a sudden illness on February 4th, 2024. Image of William Leigh

Willie grew up in Chatham, Ontario, graduating from John McGregor Secondary School in 1971.  From there he began his undergraduate studies in Chemistry at the University of Western Ontario, where he discovered his love for physical organic chemistry that persisted throughout his career.  He graduated with his B.Sc. in 1976, completing an Honours thesis project entitled The Dye-Photosensitized Oxidation of 4H-Pyrazoles, and went on to complete his Ph.D. in 1981 with a thesis under Prof. Donald Arnold, entitled Merostabilization in Radical Ions, Triplets and Biradicals.

During his early scientific career, Willie worked at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York City, continuing his interest in photochemistry applied to Laser Ablation of Polymeric Materials under the supervision of Dr. R. Srinivasan.  From there, he spent a significant period in Ottawa at the National Research Council, working in Laser Flash Photolysis and Polymer Photochemistry under the supervision of Dr. J.C. (Tito) Scaiano, who became a lifelong friend and mentor.

Willie was hired as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at McMaster University in 1983 with an NSERC University Research Fellowship.  He spent a fruitful, scientifically creative, and service-oriented career here for the next nearly forty years.  In his early days at McMaster, he was known for restructuring our graduate program into a module format and paying great attention to graduate students’ progression.  He supervised 16 Ph.D. students, 11 M.Sc. students, 9 post-doctoral fellows and scores of undergraduate students.  He was also a founding member of the RISE (Reactive Intermediates Student Exchange) program, which enables cross-Canada research experiences for undergraduate students.  Many of his alums started their research careers as students in this program.  Willie’s research interests included the photochemistry that could be caused and observed by laser flash photolysis, leading to the detection of short-lived reactive intermediates.  He expanded this theme through the group of 14 elements, starting with carbon and including molecular structures with silicon, germanium, and tin, accomplishing many notable firsts in the fundamental physical organic chemistry of such molecules.  He was the 2011 recipient of the Inter-American Photochemical Society Award in Photo Chemistry. He also won the Certificate for Excellence in Teaching from the McMaster Students Union on two occasions.

Willie was also dedicated to service, beginning in his early career and spanning his entire career.  At the international level, Willie was a strong member of the Board for the International Symposium on Silicon Chemistry, was co-chair of the triennial conference when it was held at McMaster in 2011, and co-chair of the North American Silicon Symposium when it was held at Western in 1997. At the national level, he notably served on the NSERC Discovery Grant panels from 2002-2006 and was Scientific Chair of the Canadian Society of Chemistry meeting in 2009, when McMaster hosted it. At McMaster, he took on the role of department chair twice. During his first term from 1999-2004, he guided the department through a period of enormous renewal, with faculty hiring (14 positions in 4 years) and the opening of the new undergraduate teaching labs in the north wing of the Arthur Bourns Building.  He returned to the role from 2012-2017, during a more challenging period for the Faculty of Science, and nevertheless led with tenacity and determination through those frugal years.

He retired in June 2020, service-oriented as always, offering to give up his office for incoming junior faculty hiring, which proceeded despite the pandemic.  Some of us recall working with him that summer to recycle old files from the office while enjoying the home-brewed lemonade from his office fridge.  Until then, his office sported a bust of Elvis Presley, adorned with all the conference name badges accumulated over many years of CSCs, Physical Organic mini-symposia, International Silicon conferences and the like.  He also was notorious for “decorating” the ceiling of his office with pencils – though one was never really sure whether they were thrown in bursts of creativity, frustration or some combination thereof.

Old photograph of William Leigh

Willie’s wife, JoAnne, is well known in the department as a lively and engaging partner at faculty functions and the annual December holiday party.  She graciously hosted numerous events in their home with grace, humour and a keen sense of Willie’s role in the lives of his colleagues and students. Her observations were consistently thought-provoking and insightful.  Memorably, we hosted a festive drop-in driveway retirement party for Willie in June 2020 at their home in Dundas.

Willie’s sons, Peter and Nathan, are both accomplished professionals in their fields.  Peter and his wife Adele are parents to Willie’s grandchildren, with whom he enjoyed spending time in recent years. Willie also enjoyed performing as a singer and harp player with his blues band, the Stingrays. He was an excellent chef, a connoisseur of red wines, and a maker of holiday eggnogs, specialty pickles, and other delicacies. He was also a skilled carpenter, a pastime he enjoyed during the pandemic.

Willie was a generous mentor and colleague.  We will miss his infectious laugh and keen insights.


Gillian Goward, Chair, Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology
Gillian Goward
Chair, Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology

Welcome from the Chair

Creating solutions for society’s big challenges in areas of health, the environment, energy and materials often reveals a role for chemistry to play. By exploring the fundamental reactions and links in materials – biological, organic or inorganic – we learn how to change, improve and preserve our world.

In our undergraduate Chemistry & Chemical Biology programs, we offer our students a personalized, inquiry-driven, research-focused learning experience. Our instruction is based in both the theories and applications of chemistry.

Our graduate programs are student-focused, highly streamlined programs designed to empower. Students gain the confidence and skills needed to compete in all of the fields that chemistry touches.

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