Department of Chemistry   University of Oxford


(12 September 1941 - 10 September 2009)

John BrownThe College heard with great sadness of the recent death of John Brown, Professor of Chemistry, and Fellow and Tutor in Physical Chemistry from 1983 until his retirement last year. He came from a family distinguished for academic and athletic achievements. His father, Godfrey Brown, was headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Worcester, from 1950 to 1978, and had won gold (4×400m) and silver (400m) medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, in which his aunt Audrey also received a silver medal at 4×100m. John was educated at Cheltenham College and followed his father to Peterhouse, Cambridge in 1960. There he had an equally distinguished career, with first-class honours in both parts of the Natural Sciences Tripos, representing Cambridge in the athletics match against Oxford, and rowing for the college at Henley. In 1964 he married Monika Bergstrom, a Swedish student working in Cambridge, who was to prove an invaluable support throughout his career. His interests in outdoor sports covered the mountains also. My only contact with him here was the day that he, Monika, I and several others made a rapid round of that well-known Welsh scramble, the Snowdon Horseshoe. More notable was his later ascent with Monika of Kilimanjaro.

              In 1966 he completed his Ph.D. under the supervision of Brian Thrush whose field was the study of the rates of chemical reactions in gases. To this end he asked John to build an early electron-spin-resonance spectrometer. This he did, and it worked, but better equipment was soon available commercially. John’s interest in the spectroscopy of gaseous molecules really blossomed when he went from Cambridge to work for two years with Don Ramsay at the Herzberg Institute in Ottawa. His second post-doctoral post was with Alan Carrington at Southampton, whom he had known well at Cambridge. Alan was to prove the closest of his colleagues and their collaboration culminated in their book of over a thousand pages on The rotational spectroscopy of diatomic molecules, published by Cambridge UniversityPress in 2003. His research career can best be described in the words used when he received in 1996 the Award in Spectroscopy from the Royal Society of Chemistry: ‘Distinguished for his work on the spectroscopy of gas-phase free radicals, for the development of new experimental methods of high-resolution spectroscopy such as laser magnetic resonance, for the development and application of theoretical methods incorporating vibronic coupling such as Renner-Teller and Jahn-Teller effects, and for the application of all these developments to our understanding of both organic and inorganic radicals such as NCO, CCN, HS2, InOH, NiCl2, FeH and FeH2.’       

          His career at Southampton advanced steadily; he obtained an independent research fellowship in 1969, a lectureship in 1971, and a readership in 1982. The next year the Physical Chemistry Laboratory in Oxford advertised three lectureships and John was one of the long and strong list of applicants. He was not the candidate we were looking for. Gas-phase spectroscopy had traditionally been a strength of the laboratory but for some years we had been trying to move more into research on liquids and solids. Faced, however, with such a strong candidate, with superb references from around the world, we felt we had no choice and John was appointed. Our judgement was vindicated when he was elected to the Royal Society in 2003.       

         At Exeter he followed Richard Barrow whose research interests were similar and with whom he later collaborated. Both men had wide contacts throughout the spectroscopy community and John became known not only for the excellence of his own work and that of his many students and post-docs but also for the help he gave to many outside Oxford in the unravelling of their problems of analysis. He went abroad whenever the opportunity offered and had particularly strong contacts with colleagues in France and at Boulder, Colorado. In College he was, as his colleague Simon Clarke put it when writing about him and his students, ‘an excellent tutor, mentor and friend who [was] always happy to spend time with them and offer his incisive and decisive thoughts.’ He was an ideal colleague with his quiet helpful ways and happy disposition. In neither laboratory nor college did he seek administrative jobs but he accepted willingly and carried out with total efficiency those that came his way. At Exeter he was from 1985 to 1986 the Tutor for Graduates, and from 1987-1990, in 1995, and from 2000-2002 he held, either alone or with an Arts partner, the more demanding job of Tutor for Admissions.

        Until four years ago he was probably the fittest man in the College and in the Laboratory; many will recall him pounding down Parks Road in singlet and shorts on his way to a fast circuit of the Parks before lunch. It was therefore particularly tragic that he was struck by an aggressive form of prostate cancer in 2005. Medication, Monika’s support and his own fitness kept the disease at bay for four years and allowed him to continue his research. The last time I saw him was about a fortnight before he died when he came to the lab, riding his bicycle but with Monika in close attendance. He was as cheerful as ever but was visibly weaker than when I had last seen him. He died quietly in the early hours of Thursday 10 September, two days before his 68th birthday. Our thoughts and sympathy are with Monika and their three children. Thomas Carlyle might have had him in mind when writing On Heroes, where he spoke of ‘The noble silent men, scattered here and there each in his own department; silently thinking, silently working; whom no Morning Newspaper makes mention of! They are the salt of the Earth. A country that has none or few of these is in a bad way.’

                                                                                                                  John Rowlinson

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