Alan Wilson, the distinguished British dental materials scientist and co-inventor of the glass-ionomer cement (GIC), died just before Christmas 2011, after a battle with prostate cancer. He is survived by his wife Margaret, whom he met at university and married in 1951.
Alan Wilson was involved in dental materials research from 1964 almost to the end of his life. He was an only child and born in Bow, in the east end of London. He grew up in Hackney and in retirement wrote an engaging account of his early life under the title Hackney Memories . He moved with his parents to the midlands on the outbreak of the Second World War and was educated at Laxton Grammar School, now part of Oundle School, Northampton.
In 1946, Alan went to University College, Nottingham (now Nottingham University) to study chemistry. In 1949, he graduated with a First Class Honours BSc degree of London University, and went to work at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, London, which was then part of the UK Scientific Civil Service. His early work was in chemical analysis, and from 1952, he spent several years on secondment to the Geological Survey. Here, he gained expertise in geochemistry, including the analysis of alumina-silicate rocks, which was to prove invaluable when he later became involved in dental materials research.
In 1964, Alan moved back to LGC, and was asked to undertake his first studies in dental materials science. This followed an initiative of the former Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) to support research on dental materials and equipment. The work was co-ordinated by a committee of the DSIR that included John McLean and Dennis Smith, both of whom found fame through their groundbreaking work in this field. This committee assigned to Alan the task of improving our understanding of the now obsolete dental silicate cement. Under Alan’s direction, research was undertaken that showed that what was thought about the setting and structure of these cements was incorrect. In a classic series of papers, Alan and his team showed that dental silicates were not true silicates, but a mixture of metal phosphates, the balance and hydration states of which determine the properties, including durability, of the set material. One of these papers was published in the journal Nature , probably the last time that the subject of dental materials was mentioned in that prestigious publication.
Having established a proper understanding of the chemistry of dental silicates, Alan set about the task of improving them. This work led to the invention of the glass-ionomer cement, as reported in a famous and much cited paper co-authored with Brian Kent . Alan later described in detail the nature of the work leading up to this invention in a paper memorably entitled “A hard decade’s work” .
Alan Wilson led the materials research at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist for 24 years until his retirement in 1988. He was also a member of the British Standards committee on dental materials for much of that time, including a long spell as chairman. He was a prolific author of both papers and books, publishing well over 200 papers in his career, beginning in 1955, but really taking off from 1967, when his first paper on dental silicates appeared in Journal of Dental Research . He also co-authored three books on cement chemistry, including Glass-Ionomer Cement (with John McLean) in 1988 . These publications earned Alan the unusual distinction of two higher doctorates (DSc, 1976; DTech, 1981). His work was also recognised with the Wilmer Souder Award of the IADR (1979), an OBE (1992) and Fellowship in Dental Surgery of the Royal College of Surgeons (1993). In 1988, the Materials Technology Group at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist was awarded the Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement, one result of which was that Alan attended a reception on the Royal yacht Britannia .
Alan was an engaging and witty man, as well as a brilliant and inventive chemist. He retained his scientific curiosity well beyond retirement, and undertook spells as honorary Research Fellow at Eastman Dental Institute (University College, London) and the Dental Institute of King’s College, London. Alan and his wife Margaret lived in Liphook for many years and, in retirement, Alan was much involved in the local community acting as leader writer for the Liphook Community Magazine and also Director of Studies for the Liphook University of the 3rd Age, as well as running the U3A Chess Club.