Memorial Tribute – Denis F.R. Gilson (1934–2016)


It is with great sadness that we announce the untimely passing of Emeritus Professor Denis F.R. Gilson, following a relatively short period of hospitalization. He was a close colleague of many of us in the Department of Chemistry at McGill and throughout the university. Prof. Gilson was educated initially in the U.K. at University College London, where he obtained a B.Sc. degree in Chemistry in 1957. He then moved to Canada to embark upon his M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in Chemistry at the University of British Columbia (1957–62). He completed his Ph.D. thesis under the supervision of Professor Charles McDowell, working on wide-line NMR spectroscopy in relation to molecular motion in solids in 1962. Following this, he moved from UBC to UC Berkeley, where he was a postdoctoral researcher with Professor Chester T. O’Konski for two years (1962–64). He then returned to UBC to work as a lecturer for one year, prior to his appointment as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at McGill in September 1965, just as the Otto Maass Chemistry Building was being opened. He rapidly rose through the ranks to become an Associate Professor in 1969 and a Full Professor in 1974. He was a Fellow of the Chemical Institute of Canada and the Royal Society of Chemistry (U.K.). During 1971–75, he served as Associate Dean (Academic) in the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, as it was then called, under the leadership of Vice-Principal Walter Hitschfeld.

Professor Gilson was best known as a physical chemist / spectroscopist specializing in solid state inorganic and organic materials. His scientific trademark was extremely thorough, often benchmarking spectroscopic studies of molecular solids. Throughout his career Dr. Gilson tracked a steady course of investigation and discovery related to these materials, co-authoring almost 180 papers with his graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and colleagues. His first paper was published in Nature in 1959. He supervised or co-supervised 8 M.Sc. and 15 Ph.D. students over the years. Three of his Ph.D. students were awarded the prestigious Ambridge Prize for the Best Ph.D. Thesis in Science and Engineering. He could be a critical supervisor and teacher, but he was always highly respected by his students.

Professor Gilson retired formally in December 2003, but he continued to come in every day to his office in the Pulp and Paper Building on campus, and was working on density functional calculations on coordination compounds just prior to Christmas 2015. Even when he was in hospital, he was asking about how his calculations were progressing. Denis Gilson was a major contributor to the success of the Department of Chemistry and played a role in the hiring of many of the current faculty members. He also served on the Rhodes Scholar Selection Committee for 20 years and was the Miles Distinguished Lecturer at the University of New Hampshire in 1995. He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Patricia, whom he met while at UBC, his two sons Michael (Christine) and Stephen (Karen), and his granddaughters, Kathryn Meagan Gilson and Clara Lanthier-Gilson.

Contact Information

Masad Damha
masad.damha [at]