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Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS), which allows molecules to be detected in minute amounts, was discovered by the late Prof Martin Fleischmann, Prof Patrick Hendra and Prof McQuillan at the University of Southampton in 1973. SERS has since revolutionised many areas, including crime-scene forensic analysis and drug detection.
The UK's Royal Society of Chemistry recently awarded a National Chemical Landmark blue plaque to Southampton University's chemistry department to recognise the enormous impact of SERS.
A society official said SERS had proved to be of ''vital scientific importance'' in chemistry, genetics and healthcare, including in detecting cancer genes.
Prof McQuillan and his two colleagues found that by roughening the metal surface upon which they were looking at molecules, they could greatly increase the signal that enabled them to detect these molecules.
This meant they could be detected in far smaller quantities than before. Prof McQuillan said this ''startling discovery'' involved obtaining a ''million-fold stronger Raman signal than expected''.
This enabled an inherently weak effect - called ''Raman scattering''- to be used to detect single molecules. Prof McQuillan, who is visiting Europe, said in an email interview he had been ''delighted'' to be invited back to Southampton for the recent plaque unveiling.
It was ''quite remarkable'' where the discovery had led, he added.
University of Otago officials said the landmark paper outlining the SERS discovery had been published in 1974 and Prof McQuillan left Southampton and joined the Otago chemistry department the following year.
His important research contributions were recognised when he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2008.