Obituary: Prof John Maxwell Irvine; influential academic who steered Aberdeen University through its quincentenary year

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Born: 28 February, 1939, in Edinburgh. Died: 24 March, 2012, in Coniston, aged 73.

John Maxwell Irvine was an influential academic who steered Aberdeen University through its momentous quincentenary year and went on to lead Birmingham University.

However, his career in academia was almost derailed before it began – thanks to the distractions of an idyllic Edinburgh childhood and a yearning to become an aircraft designer.

As a youngster he enjoyed the freedom of Blackford Hills and outdoor pursuits, including rugby, football, cycling and camping, rather more than the constraints of serious study in his classroom at George Heriot’s School. So much so that at one point he was in serious danger of not being required back, his parents having been summoned to the school where it was suggested he was wasting their money and the school’s time.

However, after a proposal that he should be found an apprenticeship somewhere, he knuckled down and decided he really wanted to design aeroplanes. It was only when his physics master suggested that maths and physics might be handy that his interest in the field that would become his life’s work was really kindled.

Even so, on leaving school, it was a toss up between art school and university – the latter won and he went on to become a respected physicist, despite his early aversion to study.

He was born in the capital’s Morningside. His father John was a senior executive with the National Coal Board and his mother Joan ran a successful restaurant. He went to Edinburgh University, graduating BSc in physics and maths in 1961 and then heading to America to do his Masters at the University of Michigan.

He married his wife Grace in 1962 and became an assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester for a couple of years from 1964 followed by a spell as a research associate at Cornell University in New York State.

Returning to Manchester as a lecturer in 1968, he was promoted over the next few years to senior lecturer and reader, becoming professor of theoretical physics in 1983 and dean of science six years later.

By the time he arrived at Aberdeen University in 1991, as principal and vice-chancellor, he had had a 30-year career as an active physicist, been involved in teaching and research and collaborated with fellow scientists all around the world. He had also been chairman of the Science Research Council’s nuclear physics committee, which he described as his only administrative experience at that point.

However, he had been approached by several institutions around the same time, all keen to harness his knowledge. And though he had visited Aberdeen only once, as a schoolboy rugby player, he knew something of the personalities in the Granite City, including the celebrated physicist Professor R V Jones, and decided to take on the job.

He arrived with an ambition to merge with Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University but his attempt was frustrated and while it did not come to fruition he did help to create the Aberdeen Research Consortium, an environmental research organisation comprising the two universities, the Rowett Research Institute, Torry Research Laboratories and the Scottish College of Agriculture. Relations between the two institutions also improved and he was a great supporter of Robert Gordon University.

His tenure of five years from 1991 to 1996 encompassed one of the most significant events in Aberdeen University’s history – the quincentenary celebrations of 1995. As the man at the helm of the festivities he also headed the fundraising campaign which saw support for the ancient institution rallied around the world. Having gone to the University Court requesting a £1 million war chest for the project he estimated the campaign ultimately attracted more than £30m. The cash allowed the university to establish Quincentenary Fellowships and saw 20 professors in medicine appointed.

He and his wife had travelled the globe meeting alumni groups in the run-up to the celebrations and he described the quincentenary as a wonderful learning experience, demonstrating just how influential the University of Aberdeen had been.

During his time at Aberdeen he also helped to grow the university community significantly, from 7,000 to 10,000 students, developed relations with regional educational and public bodies and chaired the Committee of Scottish University Principals.

He left in 1996 to become principal and vice chancellor of the University of Birmingham but returned to Aberdeen the following year when he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws. Two years earlier he had been awarded an honorary DSc from the College of William and Mary in, Virginia, receiving his degree alongside former United States president George Bush senior.

Irvine, who stepped down from Birmingham University in 2001 and took up an emeritus professorship back at Manchester, was also the author of numerous books and publications including his 1967 work Basis of Modern Physics, through to Heavy Nuclei, Super Heavy Nuclei and Neutron Stars in 1975 and Nuclear Power published last year.

Stephen Logan, senior vice-principal at the University of Aberdeen, said: “Professor John Maxwell Irvine was an exceptional physicist who brought with him to Aberdeen a great passion not only for the sciences but also for humanities.

“He was influential in the creation of the Institute for Medical Sciences and the Elphinstone Institute, supporting research into the traditions of the North and the north-east of Scotland.

“He will be remembered as an outstanding principal who will be sadly missed not only by former colleagues and students but by the North-east community.”

A sociable and convivial man with a huge personality, away from university life he was equally happy among a crowd of friends and colleagues or walking with his wife in the Lake District, where they had a cottage at Coniston.

He is survived by his wife Grace, their son Ritchie and partner Elizabeth and granddaughter Beatrice.