Accelerating Science Discovery - Join the Discussion

John Pople, A Theoretical Chemist

by Brian O'Donnell on Fri, July 14, 2017

John Pople, Photo courtesy of Northwestern University

To celebrate 70 years of advancing scientific knowledge, OSTI is featuring some of the leading scientists and works particularly relevant to the formation of DOE, OSTI, and their predecessor organizations and is highlighting Nobel laureates and other important research figures in DOE’s history.  Their accomplishments were key to the evolution of the Department of Energy, and OSTI’s collections include many of their publications.

John Pople was born on October 31, 1925, at Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, England.  Although none of his family had attended university, Pople was able to attend Bristol Grammar School, where at the age of 12 he taught himself secondary level of calculus.  When the school learned of his brilliance, and with the support of his parents, he began intensive studies preparing for a mathematics scholarship to Cambridge.  After arriving at Trinity College in 1943, he completed his degree in two years, worked for an airplane company from 1945 to 1947, and returned to Cambridge and earned his doctoral degree in 1951.  He subsequently was a research fellow at Trinity College and then a lecturer in mathematics at Cambridge from 1954 to 1958.

Pople left Cambridge to head the basic physics division at the National Physical Laboratory outside London.  In 1964, he moved to the United States and became a professor of chemistry at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now part of Carnegie-Mellon University, where he did the work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  In 1993, he moved to Northwestern University, where he was a professor of chemistry until his death in 2004.

John Pople was the co-winner (with Walter Kohn) of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of computational methods in quantum chemistry, which have enabled scientists to calculate the bonding of atoms in solids and molecules.

Pople took advantage of computer technology to create a program that could do what scientists call ab initio (“from the beginning” or “first principles”) calculations:  extrapolating molecular behavior purely from the fundamental laws of physics.  The program was remarkably efficient and had the potential to deliver highly accurate answers to complex chemical questions.  He called it Gaussian 70, 1970 being the year it was released.  Gaussian 76 was the first of many upgrades; newer versions of the program are used today to investigate a wide variety of problems and processes, including the structure of crystals, the chemical make-up of interstellar matter, why chemicals disrupt the ozone layer, the dynamics of chemical reactions, and the chemical interactions of drugs.

Several of Pople’s scientific publications are available through OSTI’s SciTech Connect.  He received dozens of prestigious honors throughout his career, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1961, and was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2003, and as such was known as Sir John Pople. 

Related OSTI Products: DOE R&D Accomplishments
Page last updated on 2017-09-08 10:05

About the Author

Brian O'Donnell's picture
Brian O'Donnell
Program Analyst/Communications Specialist, U.S. DOE Office of Scientific and Technical Information