Tom Waddington's Research Group

[Professor Thomas Cudworth Waddington took up the chair of inorganic chemistry at Durham in 1970, a year after appointment, bringing his research group from Warwick University. History: see 1968-81. He chaired the Board of Studies in Chemistry for three years (starting on August 1) from 1971 and again from 1977. He died in service in May 1981, aged 50.]

Group members by year of joining (Each postgraduate listed obtained the qualification shown.)

1970 Anthony Royston (associated senior demonstrator, 36 months), Neil D. Cowan and David B. Younger Ph.D.s (i.e. on October 1 started a Ph.D. study period of 36 months full-time), David A. Symon Ph.D. (January start, carrying a credit of 15 months spent beforehand at Warwick); 1971 Michael G. Harris and Roderick J. Lynch (postdoctoral, 36 and 48 months), John Tomkinson Ph.D.; 1972 Christopher I. Ratcliffe Ph.D.; 1973 Anthony Royston (Departmental postdoctoral-level electronics support until 1981 May, shared from 1977 October with Departmental duties), Anthony B. Gardner (postdoctoral, 48 months), Peter Gilmore and Joseph Howard Ph.D.s; 1975 Roderick J. Lynch (associated senior demonstrator, 36 months), Keith Robson Ph.D.; 1977 Douglas Graham Ph.D. [after 12 months, supervision shared with Joe Howard Joe Howard's Research Group]; 1978 Upali A. Jayasooriya (postdoctoral, 12 months); Keith P. Brierley (research assistant, 31 months; transferred to Joe Howard's group); 1979 Keith Robson (research assistant from October 1, 12 months); 1980 Keith Robson (senior research assistant from October 1, 7 months; transferred to Joe Howard's group).

Joe Howard contributes as follows (July 2015).


I first met Tom in his office while being interviewed for a research studentship. He was very friendly but seemed rather serious. It didn't take long, however, to realise that he was a larger-than-life character. I was sitting on a low chair in front of his large desk and he was sitting behind it. In mid sentence he leaned backwards and slowly but surely disappeared completely from my sight! Alarmed, I sprung to my feet only to see him in his articulated chair lying almost horizontally and thinking, before continuing the conversation. I never got entirely used to this phenomenon. I also learned of his passion for science fiction, claret and good food amongst many other things. I was impressed when at the end of the interview he asked “Do you really want to do this?” He was concerned that I would be leaving a good permanent job, to become a student on a grant; a benevolent attitude that I later observed many times.

When Tom moved to Durham from Warwick he and his wife, Sheila, bought a very large ex colliery manager's house and grounds in the small village of Pittington. They were well integrated into the village and allowed their property to be used for village functions. Areas of their garden were used as vegetable patch by at least one villager and another kept his horses in their field. Apparently on Saturday mornings Tom was often heard to say to his wife “Sheila dear, I think I will go in to the lab for a few hours”. This seemed to cement his local reputation as the eccentric professor. Tom rented out a stable block to students. The place had a phenomenal reputation as being the absolute best place in Durham to host a party! The student residents had such a great time there that, so I heard recently, they are planning a reunion to visit it in 2016.

Tom was “a family man” and he was a little lost when Sheila and his children were travelling. On such occasions I spent many evenings with him in the New Inn, where we discussed topics of current interest over a pint or two and seemingly endless cheese and onion rolls. He was excellent company. Occasionally he would talk about himself. He once told me about his early excitement for chemistry and how at school he had organized a firework display, having made all the fireworks himself. I believe that he never lost this enthusiasm. Once I saw him in the “inorganic corridor” wearing a fully buttoned-up white lab coat, bubbling with excitement and carrying a rack of test tubes. Now this was a rare sight, not least because he was a professor, but also because most research along that corridor was done inside glove boxes or vacuum lines. Tom was excitedly showing the test tubes to anyone he happened to meet while describing the reactions. It turned out that he was giving an invited lecture at a school on the topic of “Colour Chemistry” and, not content with using textbook examples, was trying out some new approaches.

His energy and enthusiasm were evidenced by his diverse research interests. These ranged from chemistry in non-aqueous solvents through lattice energy calculations, hydrogen bonding and many types of spectroscopy (IR, Far IR, Raman, NQR, neutron scattering, NMR) applied to a plethora of problems in inorganic and organometallic chemistry. One time Tom, Jack Yarwood and I travelled to London to appear before an SERC working committee concerning a major investment for the synchrotron radiation source at Daresbury Laboratory. Bad weather (wrong type of snow) resulted in major train delays and we arrived back into Durham at about 2:30 am. While Jack and I went home, Tom decided this was a good opportunity to catch up with work and he went straight to his office, where we met him later that morning! Tom read extremely widely and was seemingly able to contribute input and penetrating questions on vast areas of chemical research. He also had an extensive knowledge of mathematics.

Tom's research students were given extremely wide latitude in their research programmes. Like my contemporaries, I much appreciated this freedom. While he did not provide close supervision he was always happy and enthusiastic to make himself available whenever his research staff needed his input. Discussions with him were always fruitful, enlightening, and often entertaining. He had a large library in his office and in mid discussion would regularly jump up, go straight to a book, find the section of interest without reference to the contents or index pages and describe the relevance before handing the book over. I saw him do this many times and the clear impression was that he knew each of the hundreds of books intimately.

Tom Waddington was a powerful personality and a forceful character who believed in making up his mind quickly then moving on to the next topic. Procrastination, prevarication and ruminating over decisions already made, were not in his nature and he was impatient when he saw these behaviours in others. He also defended his ideas and opinions strongly, which was not always appreciated by those who saw these issues differently. My experience was that if he was proved wrong he readily admitted it and moved on without ill will. Tom could also be very blunt but I saw that that as part of his “let's get on with it” approach rather than intended to cause offence. While in a small group discussion outside his office Tom was passed by a student doing research in thallium chemistry. The student was showing signs of hair loss and Tom told him to “….go pee in a bucket and have Bob Coult analyse it”.

When he was granted a sabbatical, Tom spent it at the Institute Laue Langevin in Grenoble France (ILL). This was the world's premier neutron scattering facility. His research team saw him regularly while they were visiting to do experimental work. It was clear that Tom was enjoying himself. He was fully engaged in research, scientific discussions and reading avidly while generating his usual stream of new ideas. This was not to last. He became ill and was transferred to the UK for specialist treatment. Sadly he never returned to Durham.

I last saw Tom Waddington in a London hospital the afternoon before his untimely death. He had little interest in talking about his condition. Following his lead, and even though he was very weak, we talked about things going on in the Chemistry Department (the lab), active research programs, research funding and papers in process of publication or being written. Tom's response exemplified a central aspect of his character: his deep-seated passion for science, not simply his own research areas but of any aspect of science or mathematics.

A small group raised funding for a series of Waddington Memorial Lectures. These were very well attended. I felt privileged to be asked to give the final one, which took place at the ILL. For me it was a fitting goodbye to a man that I regard highly as enthusiast, supervisor, mentor, colleague, scientist and friend.

research_groups/prof._thomas_c._waddington.txt · Last modified: 2016/05/26 14:32 (external edit)
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