In 1947 Cedric Hassall was appointed the first Head of the Department of Chemistry at the University College of the West Indies (UCWI), now the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus. Hassall, a New Zealander, had only recently completed his PhD in Microbial Chemistry at the University of Cambridge. He brought to the department a formidable research ethic. The first graduates of the UWI were students from the Faculty of Natural Sciences (later changed to the Faculty of Pure and Applied Sciences and now called the Faculty of Science & Technology). Eleven students graduated in that first batch, having spent three years completing a Bachelor of Science degree. The number of staff expanded in 1950 and 1951.
The earliest course offerings were in organic and physical chemistry; inorganic chemistry was less of a focus. From those early days the department placed great emphasis on research, much of which had local significance. Cedric Hassall began his study of natural products from local plants such as Urechites lutea (Night Sage) and Calotropis procera (French Cotton). Other natural products research proliferated at this time including work on unusual lupine alkaloids of Ormosia jamaicensis, alkaloids from Ocotea rodiaei (Demeraera Greenheart) and fungal metabolites from Aspergillus terreus. During this time research also led to the discovery of a new soil organism named Streptomyces jamaicensis. Leila Wong, a Jamaican by birth, who had gained a B.A. degree from Indiana State University in 1949, specializing in bacteriology was appointed as a research assistant to Cedric Hassall. Kenneth Magnus as a research student later discovered the antibiotic Monamycin. Major work on Monamycin led to the development of the drug cilazapril which is still widely used in the treatment of hypertension. Hassall also began studies on rum, particularly high ester rums from Hampden estate on the North Coast. Sidney Martin, who later became the first chairman of the Scientific Research Council began a study of the new technique of the time – paper chromatography. So intense was the research in the Department that the first PhD at UCWI was awarded in 1952 to Alfred Lippman, an early member of the academic staff. In 1955 three MSc degrees (then research degrees) were awarded to graduate students Wilfred Chan, Ken Magnus and Trevor McMorris. All three went on to complete PhDs as students of Cedric Hassall. The graduate students in the department were great thinkers and very skilled, Trevor McMorris, while still a research student, synthesized the drug megimide (methyl ethyl glutarimide) to save the life of a staff member as the drug was not otherwise available at such a short notice. Early research in Physical Chemistry was led by Sidney Martin. One of Dr. Martin’s students was Gerald Lalor who, as a part-time student, completed his PhD .
Cedric Hassall believed in acquiring the latest technology to support research. Some of the instruments he secured were an early UV-VIS instrument and a new top of the line UV-VIS spectrometer, an IR spectroscopy instrument and a Craig machine. Hassall was able to establish a Special Instruments Laboratory, an idea which is still maintained. Dr. Hassall played a key role in solving the ‘mystery’ of the Jamaican Vomiting Sickness – high levels of hypoglycin A in improperly matured ackees was causing this illness.
Hassall saw the need for the application of chemistry to the Industrial scene in Jamaica and the West Indies. He set up the Chemical Technology sub-department. In 1957 Hassall left the department to become the Head of Department of Chemistry at University College, Swansea, The University of Wales.