Donnelly, John (1934–1991), chemist, was born 8 August 1934 in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, second son among three sons and two daughters of Michael Donnelly, garda sergeant, originally from Dublin, and Maureen Donnelly (née Carroll) from Tipperary. He spent his early life in Nenagh, where he went to national school. The family moved to Maynooth, Co. Kildare, where he continued his education at Kilcock national school before attending the O'Connell Schools, Dublin. Awarded a Co. Kildare university scholarship, he entered UCD (1952), where he studied chemistry, graduating with honours (B.Sc. 1956). Continuing his studies under Professor Thomas Wheeler (qv) he was awarded Ph.D. in organic chemistry (1959). His first post was to an ICI fellowship (1959–61) in the department of chemistry, TCD. Travelling further afield, he was offered a research position in Ohio State University (sponsored by the Fulbright programme), where he worked with the celebrated stereochemist Melvin Newman (1961–3). Returning to Ireland (1963), he was appointed lecturer in organic chemistry in UCD, and was promoted to statutory lecturer in 1980, the same year he was awarded D.Sc. (NUI).
Through his research interests in synthetic organic chemistry, often related to the production of compounds of potential pharmacological interest, he built up a successful research group, and established a good university–industry liaison. His work on the synthesis of small ring compounds, organo-fluorine, and heterocyclic chemistry was widely published. A gifted and inspiring research director, he attracted a large group of postgraduates, and during his life supervised thirty completed Ph.D.s. He was popular with the students and kept up contact after they had left college, often helping them in furthering their careers. Many went on to work in the Irish pharmaceutical industry. At the time of his death he was overseeing thirteen Ph.D. students, all of whom successfully completed their doctorates at UCD.
He published in many scientific journals including the Journal of the Chemical Society, Perkin Transactions 1, Tetrahedron, Chemistry and Industry, and Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. His research was concerned with two broad areas: reaction of small ring compounds and the unravelling of the complex chemistry of natural products related to chalcones and aurones. Among the most frequently cited are ‘The chemistry of 2’-amino analogs of 2’-hydoxychalcone and its derivatives’, with D. F. Farrell (Journal of Organic Chemistry, lv (1990), 1757–61); ‘Studies in the chemistry of chromone epoxides’, with J. R. Keegan and K. Quigley (Tetrahedron, xxxvi (1980), 1671–80); and ‘Chalcone derivatives as precursors of 1,2,3,4-tetrahydro-4-quinolones’, with D. F. Farrell (Tetrahedron, xlvi (1990), 885–94).
He was treasurer of the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland (1967–73) and a committee member of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Outside academia, he was interested in travel and rugby, but his main passion was the sea. An enthusiastic yachtsman and competitive sailor, he was commodore of the UCD sailing club for twelve years, as well as a member of the National Yacht Club, the Dublin Bay Sailing Club (DBSC) (vice-commodore), and the International Yacht Racing Union (IYRU). He was DBSC's protest secretary for thirteen years, later joining the Irish Yachting Union's (IYU) racing rules committee. His extensive knowledge of the rules of yacht racing brought him to national and international sailing competitions as an IYU and IYRU racing judge. With a sunny, laid-back personality, he was good-humoured and energetic. He died 27 June 1991 aged 56. In his memory the DBSC inaugurated the John Donnelly Perpetual Cup.
He married (1961) Dorothy, daughter of William V. Higginbotham, electrical engineer, and Kathleen (née Pathé); they had a daughter and a son.