Professor Sir Brian Smith

Professor Sir Brian Smith

image of brian smith

The Department of Chemistry is saddened to share the news that Professor Sir Brian Smith has died aged 89.

Brian graduated at Liverpool University and after his doctorate there went as a postdoctoral fellow to the University of California at Berkeley. He worked with Professor Joel Hildebrandt before returning to the UK where he joined the Physical Chemistry Laboratory, initially as a research fellow. In 1960 he was made a lecturer and a fellow of St Catherine's College.

He was an inspirational and popular tutor and taught the future Nobel Prize winner John Walker. He wrote the first of his books, Chemical Thermodynamics, which was widely used in Oxford and beyond.

His research was on intermolecular forces, unusually with an eye for applications in human biology. This led to an interest in the mechanism of general anaesthesia, inert-gas narcosis and decompression sickness. By adding a third component to the oxygen helium mix then in use he extended the depth at which deep sea divers could operate. Jacques Yves Cousteau came to Oxford to consult him, and he also consulted with the US Navy. His work also led to the introduction of safe general anaesthetics, replacing the primitive ones still in use.

To everyone's surprise he then turned to administration, in which he seemed to have no prior interest but his natural charisma stood him in good stead and he became Chairman of the General Board, Master of St Catherine's College and Vice Chancellor of Cardiff University in quick succession. In Wales he was a member of the Welsh Development Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council. Whilst VC at Cardiff he held the Welsh supernumerary fellowship at Jesus College, where he was a regular visitor. After retirement he continued to raise money internationally for the University.

Brian was a keen sportsman, including tennis, skiing, walking and climbing amongst his interests. He went on the Oxford (and PCL-heavy) Himalayan Expedition. Even after retirement he chaired a number of Oxford clubs and committees.

Brian never lost his interest in physical chemistry and published two further books in retirement, The Forces Between Molecules (with Maurice Rigby, 2012) and The Boltzmann Factor (2016), which was particularly well reviewed.

Above all he was a greatly liked and appreciated colleague who maintained his sense of fun and adventure until the last. We all miss him.

Keith McLauchlan FRS