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Joseph Chatt CBE FRS (1914 - 1994), research chemist

Joseph Chatt CBE FRSProfessor Joseph Chatt CBE was Director of the Unit of Nitrogen Fixation between 1963 and 1980.

The Unit of Nitrogen Fixation was originally based at the University of Sussex, Brighton. In 1987 it became an outstation of the John Innes Centre and the staff relocated to a new building in Norwich in 1995.

In 1963 Sir Gordon Cox, the then Secretary of the Agricultural Research Council of the UK, asked Joseph Chatt to set up a unit to study the process of biological nitrogen fixation. It was originally housed at Queen Mary College, London, but it soon became clear that there would not be enough room there and so it relocated to the newly founded University of Sussex. It rapidly became not just the leading centre for research in a highly competitive field but a model organisation for interdisciplinary research, much of this stemming from Chatt's style of leadership.

His personal scientific interests were in inorganic chemistry, working on transition metals, the conversion of dinitrogen to ammonia, ligands and a range of organometallic subjects such that his impact on modern coordination chemistry is extraordinary. However, he also strongly encouraged biological work at the Unit. In 1972 Postgate and Dixon discovered that the cluster of genes responsible for nitrogen fixation could be transferred from Klebsiella pneumoniae to Escherichia coli, this opened up a new era of study in biological nitrogen fixation and enabled Chatt to increase his staff by 50 % with funding from the ARC. He retired in 1980 and John Postgate took over the Directorship but its central themes and organisation remained largely unchanged until the move to Norwich in 1995. Chatt died suddenly in 1994 but remained active within School of Molecular Sciences at the University of Sussex until that day.

In Norwich his outstanding contributions were recognised by naming the new building to house the Unit after him. Today, it houses two newly formed departments within the John Innes Centre; Biological Chemistry and Molecular Microbiology.

The painting below produced by artist Leonie Woolhouse illustrates the scientific career of Joseph Chatt. It is possible to 'zoom' in and around the image via your mouse or the controls at the bottom of the image.

Reproduced from an original painting by Leonie Woolhouse