Peter Gallant found his love for chemistry as a schoolboy during the war while recovering from polio. After 30 years of working with rockets and nuclear power, he went on to apply his chemical experience in the voluntary sector advising inner-city groups.
He speaks to Alex Jackson about his lifelong passion for science.
“I read chemistry books like other people read detective stories,” says affable, wide-eyed 86-year-old Peter Gallant. Gallant’s story is one of remarkable fortitude that in recent years has seen him awarded an MBE.
Growing up in the early 1930s in Edgware, London, Gallant’s early childhood was much like many of his schoolmates. Both his parents worked in the admiralty, his dad supplying crews for ships, and his mum, a secretary. An only child, he recalls how after class he would devour books, play with train sets, and listen avidly to his parents’ records. Yet one day at the age of nine, his life would dramatically change. Taken ill in the summer of 1938, Gallant was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a nasty bone disease which infects and inflames the bone or bone marrow.
“It was a killer. Back then, the death rate was about 50%. There were no antibiotics; the only treatment was major orthopaedic surgery,” says Gallant, describing how the infection spread rapidly through his body. He had operations on the femur and tibia of his right leg, his pelvis and arms, leaving his right hip at about 30 degrees and right leg 6cm shorter than his left. “I went into hospital in June 1938 and didn’t come out until September 1942 — more than four years later. At the start I was so ill, there was no question of any education.”
“I went into hospital in June 1938 and didn’t come out until September 1942 — more than four years later. At the start I was so ill, there was no question of any education.”
Evacuated from Guy’s Hospital during the Munich crisis for fears of German air raids, he was taken to Treloar, a children’s hospital in Alton, Hampshire. He vividly recalls the five hospital ward blocks, each arranged in an arc on a hillside, facing the train tracks. His few hospital perks included watching the trains – a “huge hobby” – a daily half pint of stout “to build me up”, and being wheeled out onto the balcony in the summer of 1941 to see an eclipse.
“For four years I was strapped to two pieces of wood which went from my armpits to my feet and was fixed to the bottom of the bed,” recalls Gallant. “We would overhear dogfights on the street and see the flames rise on the southern horizon when Southampton and Portsmouth were being blitzed.”
Encouraged by his mother to read the daily News Chronicle paper while confined to his bed, Gallant would keep his mind active reading about the war and international affairs. A school teacher would also visit twice a day for an hour and “stop us forgetting what we already knew.”
After such a long spell in hospital, Gallant returned to education. “My mother wheeled me up to the headmaster of the Haberdashers’ school in Hampstead and said, ‘When can he start?’ The headmaster wasn’t sure and put me in prep school for the Christmas term. I was this great lout of 13, with pupils four years younger.” His first memory of a science laboratory really stuck with him. Having never previously studied science, he managed to finish second in his class in chemistry and third in physics.
“I was hooked from the start. The practical work was exciting and seeing a gas given off or colour changes from experiments made me want to read more and pick up theories and the underlying science,” says Gallant. He remembers how in between classes he would be sent to the roof to sound the school alarm bells against threats of incoming doodle bugs, German V-1 flying bombs. Just months before he started, a bomb had badly damaged several classrooms across from the science block.
“We each took our turn at ‘doodlebug’ duty during the flying bomb attacks,” he says. “We watched them come over, and if any reasonably near ones cut their engine, we pressed the alarm bell. Students below were supposed to get under their desks for cover.”
After graduating from Imperial College with a degree in chemistry, he attempted a PhD in X-ray crystallography, only for the research project to be scrapped halfway through. He later joined the phosphorus chemicals firm Albright and Wilson, based in Birmingham in 1953, to work on the synthesis of polymers of Phosphonitrilic chloride.
“I remember feeling intellectually out of touch with PhD colleagues straight of Oxford and Cambridge. I was just a grubby lad from London,” Gallant chortles. He quickly found the polymers had unpleasant health effects, but wanted to stay in the city, after making good friends and joining a church choir.
Gallant found a role at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) Metals division in the corrosion laboratory. Becoming something of an amateur metallurgist, his time was spent specialising in investigating and advising on problems caused by the corrosion of copper and aluminium and their alloys in service. However, it wasn’t until the late 50s that he became involved with nuclear power, taking on the first naval reactor for what was the first ever prospective nuclear submarine.
ICI Metals were contracted to produce zirconium alloys and hafnium for use in water and gas-cooled nuclear reactors, with Gallant testing their corrosion resistance to simulated reactor conditions. The first batches intended for naval submarines were rejected causing great concern to the Rear Admiral Submarines and a major investigation both in the US and UK.
Gallant’s opinions faced intense scrutiny from the Navy, arguing his case to an audience filled with trepidation. “I faced the submarine captain, naval officers, sales people, and industry representatives all wanting to build a reactor. One officer turned to me and said, ‘Young man you are going to emasculate the navy if we can’t send our submarine to sea.’ I could only reply with apologies and a refusal to send something into the sea with defect materials. It proved quite the stand-off.”
He believes that time taught him three great lessons around the “fundamental importance” of chemistry to modern technology, the need for graduate staff to learn the basics of other disciplines, and the importance of well-equipped, multidisciplinary laboratories to support new technology.
As well as later working on the development of solid propellant rocket motors for guided missiles, he also volunteered to teach a Friday evening class on corrosion at Aston University. “The previous teacher had been moved to the other side of the country just before the new term and the Fellowship of the Institute of Metals were in need of a replacement. I was newly married, skint, and had previously given lectures on corrosion, so thought why not? There were around 20 pupils each year and it took dedication to come, particularly on a Friday evening,” says Gallant.
“I loved the variety of the job, and getting involved with so many different industries. Seeing chemical and engineering technology being used, by and large, for human benefit was very stimulating, as was being able to offer solutions to serious problems,” he adds.
Leaving the technical world was quite the learning curve. At 55, Gallant joined Leeds City Council voluntary services to advise inner-city groups on management, something completely foreign to his usual laboratory surroundings.
“The change was a major shock. I was chaotically working in a bitterly cold little glass box about eight foot square with a tatty old table piled with dirty, wet paper restored from a fire,” he says. He used his skills gained in applied chemistry, such as analysis, observation and concise writing, to work with many different groups. “I thought nobody wanted a chap whose knowledge is all about rockets or nuclear power, but I was wrong. And I loved it.”
“I thought nobody wanted a chap whose knowledge is all about rockets or nuclear power, but I was wrong. And I loved it.”
Gallant quickly became a key advocate for charities and an influential local figure. He is passionate about mental health awareness and helped advise the Leeds Mind branch, as well as housing associations, homelessness charities, and prison outreach. His most notable achievement was helping to set up and initially run Foundation Housing (formerly Timble Housing), offering accommodation and support to ex-offenders.
“A probation officer came into my office one day and said he’d run a hostel for people coming out of prison for over a year but couldn’t make head nor tail of the figures. If he’d made any money, he said he’d stay open, if he hadn’t, they’d finish there and then,” recounts Gallant, who has since helped the charity spread across the north of England. “Thankfully they’d made £1,500 and the hostel owner’s face lit up. They asked me to help set it up as a charity and its turnover has gone from nothing to nearly £20m today.”
Gallant would spend most days looking at budgeting, writing constitutions and offering personnel advice, as well as helping with general administration tasks. There were other times he would go out of his way to help community groups. “I’d often go into Chapel Town in Leeds, sit with families, and discuss domestic issues. Many of the families and groups were based in an area which had an unfortunate reputation at the time. I honestly never had any trouble. It was a rewarding job.”
The London-born scientist, who now lives in Wetherby, North Yorkshire, believes the biggest change in society’s attitude to disability is the willingness to discuss how people’s reasonable needs can be met. He received an MBE for his services to the voluntary sector in the January 2005 Honours list.
“We should promote the everyday benefits chemistry brings to society and the ability of good, but not exceptional, individuals to contribute a worthwhile activity,” concludes Gallant. “We are not all Nobel Prize winners, and I sometimes think we overawe outsiders and the young by the publicity given to brilliant research, giving them the impression that such success is the norm. Chemistry is a wonderful training ground for a fascinating lifetime in all sorts of spheres.”
Peter Gallant is one of the 175 faces of chemistry on show at a free public exhibition at the Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, open weekdays (10-4) until 4 March.