Support Staff

The administrative/secretarial team, the research services team and the technical/laboratory team are staff at the centre of everything that happens in the Department. What stories of your contact with them have you to share? How to Contribute You might want to put them under a decade heading [see Elizabeth Wood's recollection The 60's] or under a heading for a specific person.


Tommy Argument (1924-2010) was a character. From 1969 to 1987, he was the Chemistry storeman, tasked to let a negligible part of the store's contents out of his sight, as for most of his employment there was no money to restock. To many, that would have been mission impossible, yet TDA had much on his side. A baleful stare across the store's hatch, positively murderous if Sunderland had lost at soccer the weekend before, would make most customers not members of the Chemistry Department turn tail. Chemistry postgraduates seeking glassware for chemical synthesis would hear “The glassblowers mak'em”. If they stood their ground, an ear-splitting, unstoppable tirade of well-chosen barbs could be unleashed, spiced with direct language from more than two decades of coalmining. Further, Tommy had a remarkable memory for what each caller had managed to extract on previous visits, and for the entire contents of the store at that very moment. Staff would fare slightly better, particularly if they helped with the day's crossword or shared Tommy's passionate interest in gardening. Yet Tommy was a shrewd observer of human behaviour; though few got what they asked for, nearly all got what they needed. For more about Tommy Argument, see The 70's.


At school in Houghton-le-Spring, Mel Caygill (1943-2008) became fascinated by practical chemistry, so when a junior-technician post in the local university was advertised, offering employment, further education and variety, Mel, by then 17, applied. He was recruited at a weekly wage of six pounds by the panel of Geoff Coates, Ken Musgrave and Jack Gibby. On the bus home, he saw greenhouses for sale at eighteen pounds; “I can afford one if I handle cash properly”, he mused.

His high-minded interviewers had not thought to establish the preferred forename of their new appointee, Thomas Melvyn Caygill, so introduced him to his new colleagues as Tom. Mel quietly decided that from then on he would be Tom at work and Mel at home.

A dexterous practical worker, loving new challenges and unfailingly cheerful and confident, Tom climbed the promotional ladder quickly, looking after analytical services and then synthesising research chemicals - some pyrophoric - with common-sense, intrinsically safe techniques. So when the time came to be desk-bound, he remained approachable to experimentalists, knowing and responding positively to their needs and urgencies.

As Chemistry's accounting technician (1973) and then its purchasing officer, Tom acquired the confidence and trust of fellow technicians, research-group leaders and students. A measure of his success is the memorable day he spent in the central store with Tommy Argument purging it of custom-built glassware - gas-storage bulbs, Töpler pumps and the like - stretching back decades and the apple of the latter's eye. Another measure was the steady rise of Chemistry's national standing; close to Tom's heart and due in significant part to his efforts to treat all the Department's workers as a coherent team. He was the natural choice as deputy Chemistry superintendent (1985) and then in 2000 became superintendent.

In January 2008, Tom retired, returning briefly in June to receive the University's degree of Master of Science, honoris causa. Then Mel could afford to forget Tom; the Chemistry Department will not.


Euan Ross, writing in 2016, January, recalls an early aspect of his work in the Chemistry Department.

The steepest learning curve I seemed to face in 1974 on January 2 as the University’s first Chemistry administrator was the exercise of responsibility for the training and management of the Department’s technical and laboratory staff. There were thirty of the former, including seven trainees, and seven of the latter. My job was a fusion of most of the duties of two others: (1) chief technician [Andrew Wiper, the previous holder, had died suddenly, in service, ten months earlier] – hence the management - and (2) subsidiary-chemistry lecturer [Eric (Chas) Downing, the holder, was still in post; due to retire 27 months later] – hence the training. So the candidates for the first trainee-technician vacancy I had to handle, in 1976, were not the only apprehensive people in the room.

I need not have worried. Graham Ruecroft (1960-2015), reporting for duty from Trimdon Grange during the month after his 16th birthday, proved keen to work and learn, and in the following month, with none of the usual school-leavers’ reluctance, started two years of day-release study for an Ordinary National Certificate in chemistry [equivalent these days to a level-3 sciences certificate of the Business and Technician Educational Council]. He spent the first fourteen months of his three years of on-the-job training assisting Glyn Metcalfe, the technician servicing the laboratory for first-year undergraduates [in the space now filled by rooms 040 to 049]. Graham’s time in that laboratory was interspersed with shorter stints in the other two undergraduate laboratories [021 (Bill Harris) and 127 (Elizabeth Nevins); rooms still in use, though for different parts of the curriculum]. He then moved to laboratory 019 [now lecture room 060] shared by the research groups of Keith Dillon and Mel Kilner. In those days, research-group leaders expected dedicated, embedded technical help funded by the University - and from the mid 50s to mid 80s most groups obtained such help. So in 019 Graham, supervised by Jim Lincoln, the technician preparing starting materials for the Dillon group, began to deliver the same service for Mel Kilner's Research Group. Graham’s strong sense of humour began to contribute to the postgraduate charivari in 019 and he revealed an enduring commitment to Fishburn Colliery Welfare Band [now Fishburn Brass Band] as a cornet player since the age of 12. In September 1978, when the time came for Graham’s third trainee placement, energetic academic lobbying ensured that he stayed put in room 019 for the rest of his employment at Durham.

As a conscientious and successful day-release student, Graham was encouraged to continue beyond ONC; in 1980 he was awarded a Higher National Certificate (BTEC Sciences, level 5) after two day-release years at Teesside Polytechnic [now Teesside University]. The Department was poised to fight his cause should he commit to continuing day release, unprecedentedly, to degree level, yet Graham's interest in chemistry was deepening and widening. He decided to switch in 1980 to full-time study at Teesside and aim for Graduateship of the Royal Society of Chemistry by examination, which he achieved in January, 1983. In the Society's subsequent newsletters, I was to read of his achievements in the profession and quietly admire them. SCI News RSC News


David Clark David Clark's Research Group, writing in 2020,May, pays tribute to a valued colleague.

George Brian Rowe (1938-2020) came to work in the Chemistry Department as an electronics technician in the 1960s, bringing five years’ experience gained from his service in the Royal Air Force, where he worked on instrument landing systems, and further industrial experience beginning with a year at Sellafield in the nuclear industry. Until 1976 George was based in temporary buildings – the huts – on the site occupied since 1998 by the Calman Learning Centre and the Earth Sciences Building. The huts had housed the services for mass spectrometry and X-ray crystallography, the laboratory for undergraduate radiochemistry and the research groups for surface chemistry and nuclear-quadrupole resonance spectroscopy. George was very much involved with these activities, keeping the equipment working and designing and building new instruments. He was extremely skilled in electronic and mechanical design and fabrication. His involvement continued when the activities and his base moved in 1976 to the Chemistry-Geology Building, where George worked until retiring in March 2003.

Perhaps one of George’s most significant contributions was to surface science research under its successive leaders David Clark, Hugh Munro and Jas Pal Badyal. Equipment George designed and built is still in regular use.

Outside work, George had various interests, music being one. He played piano, clarinet and accordion, and sang in a choir. He was also an accomplished artist and had many of his works on display at his home in Lanchester. These interests continued when he retired to Byers Green.

George was in some ways a very private person - famously averse to being photographed - but those privileged to have known him would have discovered him to be a lovely gentleman. George could be sparing with his words, but when engaged in conversation he was revealed as a clever, knowledgeable and indeed humorous man.

support_staff/support_staff.txt · Last modified: 2020/05/05 15:41 by euan
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