Professor George Gray – The University of Hull scientist behind LCD Technology

In a laboratory at the University of Hull 50 years ago, a new chemical compound was created that would impact the world as much as any drug, fuel or material. The man responsible for this society-changing invention was Professor George Gray – his new liquid crystal molecules (now known as 5CB) made liquid crystal displays (LCDs) viable and kickstarted the multibillion-dollar flat-screen industry.

From the Hull History Centre Archives – Photograph A4543

In this article we hear from alumni who knew George Gray as they share their stories about a colleague, teacher and man who was a key figure in a fascinating part of the history of the University of Hull and who is described by one of our contributors, Dr Leslie Mayor, as ‘a brilliant chemist and a very friendly and inspirational person.’

Read Mark Lorch’s article from last year about the scientific breakthrough >>

Read the Hull History Centre’s page dedicated to Professor George Gray >>

See the Hull History Centre’s Catalogue of the Archives of the Liquid Crystal Research Group >>

Read the profile on Dr George Gray published in Gooch >>

In 1950 when I came to University College Hull, Mr Gray was a young lecturer in INORGANIC chemistry, recruited by Prof Brynmor Jones. His lectures were outstandingly good with only one rival: Mr Baldwin, another young lecturer (physical chemistry) appointed at the same time. 

In a subsequent year I was surprised to find that inorganic chemistry was not George’s only/major discipline since he was teaching our ORGANIC chemistry practical labs. I had switched from a general degree to Special Chemistry and, since I had already done the basic stuff, George asked me to do prep for him connected with his research. It appeared to go well, although the yield was fortunately low, because overnight the product disappeared. It had either exploded or self-ignited in the fume cupboard. No damage done but he never asked me to do any more preps! I don’t know if George had become interested in liquid crystals at that time but if so it didn’t damage that either.

After graduation I started a PhD with Roy Baldwin. In those days undergraduate lectures and labs were in various wooden huts. The research “department” had a hut adjacent to the building site which was to become the new chemistry block.  Physical and organic chemists each occupied half of the long hut separated by a glass- blowing and equipment storage rooms. So the main interaction between the groups was during coffee and tea breaks when, occasionally, an improvised game of quoits using a retort stand and cork rings was held and which could become quite competitive. I can’t remember if George was any good (I didn’t shine) but it provided plenty of amusement.

Those are my memories of George Gray, a brilliant chemist and a very friendly and inspirational person.

Dr Leslie Mayor, BSc Chemistry 1954 and PhD Chemistry 1959

Professor George Gray with Dr Michael Lee

I was, I believe, George’s last PhD student from Hull.  Proud.  So so very proud.

Visionary scientist who was never given sufficient credit for his achievements.  But most importantly, a witty, caring and humble person, a true and sincere friend, and I miss Marjorie and him dearly.

The above picture was taken on his last day in C307, School of Chemistry, before his retirement from the University in 1990.

Dr Michael Lee, BSc Chemistry, 1987 and PhD Chemistry 1992

George Gray lectured to me as a Special Honours Degree in Chemistry student in the 1958-1961 intake. I proceeded to undertake research for a PhD degree with Professor Norman Bellamy Chapman (known to all as NBC) in his medicinal chemistry research group, attempting to find agonists and antagonists of serotonin, which had just been discovered at that time in the brain and gastrointestinal tracts of our bodies. We worked first in a laboratory in the teaching block of the department before moving into a laboratory on the third floor of the then newly-built research block next door. Our laboratory was on one side of George’s research laboratory and NBC’s students who studied reaction kinetics were in another laboratory on the other side. This is what I wrote in  Volume I of my autobiography ‘Science and Politics; An Unusual Mixture’, published in 2015:

‘In between the two NBC laboratories Dr George Gray, another Hull Lecturer in Organic Chemistry, had a laboratory. His research group worked on a series of compounds called biphenyls, mainly recording their spectra and other physical properties after their synthesis. At that time this work didn’t seem very interesting to me.

George mixed well with postgraduate students, and we were regular visitors at the Haworth Arms at the junction of Cottingham Road and Beverley Road. I never in a month of Sundays thought that this laboratory would become as famous as it did a few years later. I don’t think George Gray knew the significance of his work at that time either. George and his students were carrying out pioneering work that led to the use of liquid crystals in electronic (LCD) displays that are very familiar to us today – in televisions, mobile phones, etc, etc. He wrote a seminal book on the synthesis and properties of biphenyl compounds which attracted the attention of Japanese scientists who were developing LCD displays.

The Hull compounds were patented, and the development work was done at the University of Hull, at the Royal Signals Establishment and at Poole in Dorset in the development laboratories of British Drug Houses (BDH; later Merck bought this plant). That work helped to put the Chemistry Department in Hull on the international map and George proceeded to win several international prizes for his work.’

After leaving Hull I returned several times to the university to present my 90-min. demonstration lecture ‘The Magic of Chemistry’ to large audiences of schoolchildren, which kept me in touch with George (and others). After he left Hull, he invited me to stay with him at his home in Dorset before I presented ‘The Magic of Chemistry’ to an audience of schoolchildren at Sherborne School in February 1992. Thanks to George Gray, in 1985 BDH Chemicals Ltd published my first book – ‘The Magic of Chemistry’ – which contained all the ‘recipes’ for teachers to repeat my demonstrations in their schools.

Dr Brian Iddon (former MP for Bolton, South East), BSc Chemistry, 1961, PhD Chemistry, 1964 and DSc Chemistry, 1981.

From the Hull History Centre Archives – Photograph A4543

In the autumn of 1960, George Gray introduced into the Department of Chemistry what was then the ‘cutting edge’ analytical technique of infrared absorption spectroscopy.  The Department acquired an infrared spectrophotometer which was a sophisticated, state-of-the-art instrument, and complex both optically and electronically.  It weighed around three quarters of a ton, whereas a modern version with much superior capabilities would now be about the size of a picnic hamper.   It arrived on the day that George’s youngest daughter was born – so a day of memorable deliveries.

Over the next five years George utilised this facility to support his work on liquid crystals while his colleagues in the Department became increasingly keen to utilise the technique in their own research.  A point was reached at which it became clear that a new, specialist appointment of a junior member of staff to supervise infrared and other spectroscopic work would be appropriate.  Thus it was that, in 1965, I joined the Department as the university’s first Senior Experimental Officer.

I already had ten years of practical experience in this field but was initially unfamiliar with the particular instrument that I encountered in Hull.  George was very generous with his time in patiently introducing me to the idiosyncrasies of the machine and explaining how to use it to best effect.  This was something I much appreciated and was the start of a friendly and mutually esteemed relationship.

When, in the following decade, George made his major breakthrough in respect of liquid crystal displays, the Department rejoiced in his success.  It was quickly recognised with the receipt of the Queen’s Award for Technical Achievement by the Department and the Fellowship of the Royal Society and a long overdue personal chair for George himself.

In 1984 he finally succeeded to the G F Grant chair (the senior professorship in chemistry) and became Head of Department.  By that time, I had become the Department’s Laboratory Manager, a somewhat misleading designation since it was purely administrative and required little time to be spent in the laboratories.  In George’s words, the Lab Manager was “without doubt the Head of Chemistry’s right hand”.  I felt very privileged to support him in his new role.

The burgeoning activity of the liquid crystal group led to multiple new research contracts, and not only for the group itself.  George had undoubtedly raised the profile of the Department nationally.  The financial supervision of all these contracts resulted in significant expansion of my own responsibilities and, in view of this and other factors, the Department’s Management Group ultimately submitted a recommendation to the Personnel Committee that the job should be regraded (i.e. that I should be promoted).  Unbeknown to me at the time, after reviewing the case presented by the Group, George appended a trenchant personal letter to the Committee which, I feel sure, ensured the acceptance of the recommendation.

By nature, George was a quiet and modest man. On one occasion, when the Department was nominating him for yet another award (from the Royal Society of Chemistry if my memory serves me correctly) I asked him to supply me with a brief scientific CV.  He duly obliged, with a note attached: “Is this OK, Geoff, or is it all a load of c**k?”  Needless to say, it was far from it.

Geoffrey Collier, former Laboratory Manager and Senior Experimental Officer at the University of Hull and MA History 2012

I was a chemistry undergraduate at Hull, 1958-1961, and then a PhD research student, 1961-1964. During my second year as a research student I was editor of Gooch, the journal of the Hull University student chemical society. By then it had been going for five years in a typewriter-set, duplicated format. I decided that I’d like to transform it into a printed version: typeset and printed by a commercial printer. The new format required much more material, copy, than before and I had to think up various new features to be included in the three issues (one each term) to be produced in my year as editor (and the subsequent ones of my successors). One of these new features was a series of profiles of individual staff members of the chemistry department. I interviewed the ones I’d decided on, one for each of my three issues, and wrote a piece on them.

For my second issue, January 1963, my profile subject was George Gray. The piece describes his early work on the properties of liquid crystalline systems. And then the following sentence: ‘However, in Dr Gray’s view, further rationalisation in this field requires the treatment of the physicist and the mathematician, and for this reason his research activities in this direction will now be limited.’

Thoughts on withdrawing from research in the field! But he didn’t and the rest, as they say, is history.

Read the profile on Dr George Gray published in Gooch >>

Dr Michael Rodgers, BSc Chemistry, 1961 and PhD Chemistry 1964

From the Hull History Centre Archives – Photograph C 4544

7 thoughts on “Professor George Gray – The University of Hull scientist behind LCD Technology

  1. I had George in my B.Sc. days from 1960 to 1963. A great man I remember fondly

    Geoffrey R. Wilson B/Sc 1963, Ph.D. 1966


  2. Excellent articles and fulsome richly deserved praise for a great man and terrific chemist. He took what were esoteric, chemical curiosities which were not stable or functional at operational temperatures into the pervasive world beating products that they are now. I was fortunate to have been part of one of his 4 person tutor groups for my last year of Special Chemistry (1971) and could not have wished for a more able, reflective and gifted tutor. Anecdotally, the rumour was that the University kept trying to promote him but he resisted, choosing to remain at the cutting edge of this seminal field, which he made his own. He inspired generations of students to push the boundaries of their abilities.


  3. The subject of my BSc thesis in 1968 was the synthesis of a liquid crystal. It should have been the synthesis and reactions of the molecule but I only got as far as the synthesis because, in spite of my best efforts, the formulation kept failing. I was finally successful when Dr Gray (as he was then) and I concluded that the surface of the reaction flask was too hot because an isomantle was being used to heat the mixture. Reverting to a water bath solved the problem and, finally, I had a liquid crystal. Unfortunately, the deadline for the project meant that I could do nothing with the product.
    In spite of the repeated failures, George Gray was supportive throughout the lab work and never once criticised my efforts. Afterwards, he provided unlimited help in preparation of the thesis, including getting his secretary to type it up.
    Always ready to chat to undergraduates, he was one of life’s good guys and a pioneering chemist. I am glad to have known him.


  4. Professor Gray was Head of Chemistry while I was doing my degree in the early 80s. I remember him as a gentle, twinkly-eyed man with a pipe. Nice to read the memories of Roy Baldwin, too, who was my Phys. Chem lecturer.


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