Obituary: Brian Gowenlock, Professor of Chemistry and head of department at Heriot-Watt University for 21 years

Professor Brian Gowenlock was a  key figure in Heriot-Watt University's move from Chambers Street to Riccarton.
Professor Brian Gowenlock was a key figure in Heriot-Watt University's move from Chambers Street to Riccarton.
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Professor Brian Gowenlock, academic. Born: 9 February, 1926. Died: 17 March, 2019 aged 93

Brian Glover Gowenlock, FRSE 1969, Professor of Chemistry and Head of the Department of Chemistry, Heriot-Watt University 1966-1987, Dean of the Faculty of Science, Heriot-Watt University 1969-1972 and 1987-1990 and Vice-Chairman of the University Grants Committee 1983-1985, was born in Oldham, Lancashire.

He was the younger son of Harry and Hilda Gowenlock and his father was an office worker at Platt’s Cotton Mill, Oldham. A strong early influence was his maternal grandfather, a self-educated man, who instilled in Brian the love of learning. Brian was proud of his Lancastrian roots and retained traces of his Oldham accent to the end of his life.

He received his early education through a Hulme scholarship at Oldham Hulme Grammar School and continued, with a state scholarship, to the University of Manchester, from where he graduated with 1st class BSc Honours in 1946. He subsequently obtained an MSc and PhD at the University of Manchester in 1947 and 1949 respectively. His PhD studies in gas-phase kinetics were carried out under the direction of Dr Ernest Warhurst FRSE and Professor Michael Polanyi FRS.

He moved to University College, Swansea, a constituent College of the University of Wales, as an Assistant Lecturer in 1948 and was promoted to Lecturer in Physical and Inorganic Chemistry in 1951. Later, Brian loved to recount the story of watching Kingsley Amis, then a lecturer in the Department of English, laughing out loud while writing Lucky Jim, the famous novel about academic life.

Brian moved to Birmingham University in 1955 as Lecturer in Physical Chemistry where there was an active group in gas kinetics. He was subsequently promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1964. For his published work he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science by Birmingham University in 1962. In 1963, he was a Visiting Scientist at the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa.

Heriot-Watt University was fortunate to attract Brian to Edinburgh in 1966 as Professor of Chemistry and Head of the Department of Chemistry; the latter post he filled with distinction for 21 years. He served two terms as Dean of the Faculty of Science (1969-1972 and 1987-1990) during periods of significant change, not least in his growing of the research activity of the department whilst the newly created technological university was moving from its Chambers Street Buildings to a green-field site at Riccarton, some six miles from the centre of Edinburgh. Latterly, he used his calm demeanour to minimise the frustrations felt within the university, due to the economic climate of the times, at the shelving of the university’s plan for furthering the move to the Riccarton campus, not completed until the 1990s. This dictated chemistry staff having to teach at two sites for many years, with consequent inefficiencies. Professor Gowenlock was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE) in 1969 and Erskine Visiting Fellow at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand in 1976.

The Scottish tradition that professors should lecture to first year university students was adopted with enthusiasm and covered a broad sweep of physical chemistry from the properties of gases to quantum chemistry. He was deeply committed to teaching and introduced many innovations, as Head of Department, both in the introduction of new degrees, modernising the curriculum and fostering postgraduate research.

Brian was acknowledged internationally as a leader in the field of nitroso compound chemistry with a publication list spanning from 1953 to 2008, with 41 papers published after his formal retirement. Publications included several major review articles and a co-authored text Experimental Methods in Gas Kinetics in 1964.

In 1976 Brian was appointed as a member of the University Grants Committee (UGC), whose role was to advise on the distribution of grant funding at British universities. He was appointed Chairman of the UGC’s sub-committees for the Physical Sciences and for Equipment and completed over nine years’ service as a member of the UGC, latterly as a Vice-Chairman (1983-1985). He continued to serve as the UGC Observer on the Scottish Tertiary Education Advisory Council until 1987.

In recognition of his contribution to higher education in the UK, Brian was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1986 New Year’s Honours List.

Brian, who for 21 years (1966-1987) brought considerable flair and distinction to the positions of Head of Department and Dean at Heriot-Watt University, retired in September 1990, following his final term as Dean of the Faculty of Science. The award of a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship allowed him to continue his research for a further two years. On moving to Devon in 1992 he continued an active scientific and social life, becoming an honorary member of the University of Exeter as Visiting Professor and continuing to publish and collaborate with researchers across the world into his eighties.

Brian was a devout Methodist and served as a Local Preacher for 70 years. His faith was lived out in his kindness, concern for social justice and enduring friendships. He had a strong commitment to inter-faith dialogue. He was deeply interested in the interplay between science and religion and much influenced by the polymath, Michael Polanyi FRS, his PhD supervisor.

Brian had interests in history, travel and genealogy, and was renowned for his encyclopaedic memory and attention to detail. He traced the Gowenlock ancestry back to 17th century Selkirk and was particularly delighted to find an enterprising forebear who made shoes for the Jacobite army in 1745.

Brian met his wife, Margaret (died 2013), in Swansea and they were married for almost 60 years. Margaret was to become a Chemistry Lecturer in Further Education (Hons BSc Chemistry 1951).

Brian is survived by his children Stephen, Cathren and Judith, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.