John Alec Sydney Smith was born in Nottingham on 7 August 19 and won a scholarship to study at Nottingham High School.
This was followed by a further scholarship, to read chemistry at Lincoln College, Oxford. He graduated with a first in 1948 and went on to a DPhil under the supervision of Sir Rex Richards.
As Sir Rex’s first research student, he had the opportunity to work and publish on some of the pioneering European experiments applying nuclear magnetic resonance to chemical systems in a solid state. His work on crystal hydrates led in 1951 to a job in the crystallography unit at the University of Leeds’ School of Chemistry, where Sir Ernest Gordon Cox was working to foster the development of NMR techniques.
This proved a congenial environment and Professor Smith was soon heading a major NMR group, whose activities included the construction of a high- resolution instrument, while also taking over the analysis of the benzene crystal structure that Sir Ernest had put aside in 1932.
In 1965, he accepted a position as reader in the School of Molecular Sciences at the new University of Warwick. He joined forces with a research student, David Tong, to invent a nuclear resonance spectrometer, which would be manufactured by Decca Radar Instruments. And he became an acknowledged authority on the role of nuclear quadrupole resonance (NQR) in studying solids.
From Warwick, Professor Smith moved on in 1971 to a chair in chemistry at Queen Elizabeth College, University of London, before joining King’s College London when the two colleges merged.
He established an active NQR group at King’s and developed a particular interest in using NQR spectroscopy to detect explosives and narcotics, and to intercept counterfeit pharmaceuticals through quality control techniques at every stage of their manufacture.
Peter Sadler, professor of chemistry at the University of Warwick, described Professor Smith as an “old-school” scientist who built his own instruments, rather than buying them off the shelf.
He was also, Professor Sadler added, always modest about his achievements, despite being “a leading national figure with a very strong international reputation” whose “expertise was so unique and so valued one could have worked profitably with him even in his eighties”.
Professor Smith remained an active researcher and emeritus professor right up to the end of his life. He died of a sudden myocardial infarction on 25 April 2013 and is survived by his wife and daughter.