Nolan, Thomas Joseph (1888–1945), chemist, was born 11 November 1888 at 16 Newmarket, Dublin, eldest of nine children of Joseph Nolan, compositor in a print works, and Ellen Nolan (née O'Keefe), both from Dublin. He was educated at CBS, Synge St., Dublin, where his interest in chemistry was initiated by an enthusiastic science teacher whose unorthodox practical classes included getting the students to duck behind the benches while he ignited hydrogen gas generated from a reaction of zinc and sulphuric acid. The resulting bang may have left some resonance with Nolan, as he later worked for many years on military explosives in the UK. He obtained second place in Ireland in his chemistry intermediate examination. In 1906 he was awarded the Archbishop Walsh university scholarship in science, with a value of £150, and entered University College, Dublin, where he studied chemistry and experimental physics, receiving his BA (1909) from the Royal University, with first-class honours in both subjects. He continued a postgraduate course in chemistry and experimental physics at UCD (1909–11), receiving the first M.Sc. (1912) in chemistry granted by the NUI.
In 1911 he was awarded the NUI travelling studentship in chemistry for his thesis, ‘The higher ketones and secondary alcohols derived from the amides of palmitic and stearic acids’, which was subsequently published in the Proceedings of the RIA. He studied at Geneva, London, Marburg, and Berlin (1911–14), where he worked with eminent chemists of the day, publishing his work in Proceedings and Transactions of the Chemical Society, London and in Liebigs Annalen der Chemie. In Berlin he worked under R. Willstätter, helping him in his classical study of the pigments of plants, a topic that continued to interest him all his life. The outbreak of the first world war forced his return to Dublin in 1914. That year the NUI awarded him a D.Sc. for his research work, which was described by Hugh Ryan (qv), professor of chemistry, as ‘of an unusually high order of merit’ (Report of the President of University College, Dublin . . . 1944–45).
His work took a more practical turn in 1915 when he joined the research staff of Nobel's Explosives Co., Ardeer, Scotland, where he worked on military high explosives and the manufacture of fine chemicals for ten years. He developed a new propellant powder, ‘Ardeen cordite’, made without the aid of a volatile solvent, which was patented and adopted as a service powder by the British government. In 1919 he was placed in charge of development work on propellants and devised several new types of sporting powders for rifles. In 1924 Imperial Chemical Industries asked him to investigate the production methods for the explosive Tetryl, manufacture of which had been halted after serious accidents. He successfully solved the production problems and a new plant was brought into operation. In 1925 he was sent on a technical mission to Czechoslovakia to report and advise on the explosives manufacturing industry there. Nearly all his industrial work was secret and only three papers were published, although his name was on several patents and many ICI reports. However, during this time he maintained his interest in pure organic and biochemical research.
He had a great love of Dublin and in 1925 he happily returned to the city to succeed Joseph Reilly (qv) as assistant state chemist. Six years later he succeeded Hugh Ryan, first as state chemist (1931) and then as professor of chemistry at UCD (1932), after Ryan's death. His academic career was a great success. His dynamic personality and enthusiasm and love of research helped build up a school of active young researchers. He continued his interest in plant pigment analysis and extended his investigations to products derived from native Irish lichens, publishing many papers in this difficult field. A list of his earlier papers is found in Algar (1955–6). As well as being a lucid and inspiring lecturer he was known as an able administrator and organiser. He became a member of the governing body of UCD and served on its finance and buildings committees. Outside the university he was an active member of council of several bodies: the RIA (member 1918), Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland (1918), English Chemical Society, and RDS. He acted as chairman of the board of the Industrial Alcohol Factories established by the Irish government and was a member of the Irish Industrial Research Council.
He married (1917) Florrie McGloughlin, of the famous metalwork family J. & C. McGloughlin; they had three sons and two daughters. Two sons became engineers, and his daughter Helen qualified in medicine and later married Patrick Fitzgerald (qv), UCD professor of surgery. Joseph Algar (qv), an old classmate from his chemistry class in Synge St. and later UCD professor of organic chemistry, was his best man; he described Nolan as a truly great chemist and an intensely human and understanding person. Nolan died 12 March 1945 and was posthumously awarded the RDS Boyle medal for his work on lichens.