Obituary: Professor Gavin MacDonald, noted academic with wide-ranging interest in the arts

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Professor S Gavin G MacDonald MA PhD FInstP FRSE. Born: 5 September 1923 in Beauly, Inverness-shire. Died: 17 November 2019, aged 96.

Simon Gavin George MacDonald (known as Gavin) was born in Beauly, Inverness-shire, on 5 September, 1923, but his parents moved to Edinburgh at the end of his first year. He was educated at Craiglockhart Primary and George ­Heriot’s (having been first in the school’s bursary competition). There he thrived, going on to be Dux of the school as well as Dux of physics, chemistry and mathematics. As well as being a prefect, in a sign of a move he was soon to make, he was the First Flight Sgt of the Air Training Corps.

Gavin left Heriot’s in 1941 and went to the University of Edinburgh to study mathematics and physics, winning a Spence Bursary in maths and the Newton Prize in physics at the end of his first year.

After two years the war intervened and he was called up as a ­junior scientific officer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, working on radar and anti-radar materials. He returned to the University of Edinburgh in 1946 and graduated two years later with a First Class honours degree in mathematics and natural ­philosophy.

His first academic job was as lecturer in physics at ­University College Dundee, then a part of the University of St Andrews. There he was awarded his PhD in 1953 for a thesis entitled Theoretical and Crystallographic Investigation of the Molecular Structure of Certain Organic ­Compounds. His research interests would continue to be in crystallography.

After his PhD he was able to indulge his interest in writing, first with science ­fiction stories and, later, short detective stories, of which he had written more than 300 by the time of his death. After retirement he wrote a series of detective novels, all in the ­classic manner where the solution is arrived at by ­logical deduction.

He had married Eva Leoni Austerlitz, a German refugee, in 1948 (she died in 1999) and they had two children, Neil in 1950 and Carolyn in 1954. The family moved to Jamaica in 1958 where Gavin took up an appointment as senior lecturer at the University College of the West Indies. He quickly established an x-ray crystallographic unit in the Department of Physics as well as ­visiting the islands to advise local governments on ­setting up school science departments.

The arrival of the McDonald family in the West Indies coincided almost exactly with the launch of the first Sputnik ­satellite. Gavin was one of the few people in Jamaica at that time who had studied satellites and space travel.

After delivering a highly successful invited lecture on these topics, he was asked by an advertising agency to write a series of science fiction radio programmes which would make the underlying physics of space travel accessible to a wider audience.

Three acclaimed series of Space Rider resulted. He also became a member of the brains trust panel on Jamaican radio. Gavin had always been a keen bridge player and in Jamaica he became involved in the serious side of the game. With his partner, he won the Jamaican Junior championship and his ­university team twice won the league cup.

Gavin returned to Scotland as senior lecturer at the University of St Andrews, transferring to the University of Dundee when it was founded in 1967. He was soon promoted to a Personal Chair, having already been appointed Dean of the Faculty of Science (1970). In 1974, he became the first vice-principal of the University of Dundee, a post he held for the next five years. In his own discipline he wrote Problems and Solutions in General Physics 1967.

One of his many teaching roles was to co-ordinate the teaching of physics to medical and dental students with his colleague, Desmond Burns. Teaching a highly mathematical discipline to these groups would now be seen as a challenging prospect but he believed that, with an imaginative approach, its ­relevance to ­clinical science could be made apparent. The result was the highly acclaimed Physics for Biology and Medical Students (1970). A later ­version aimed at the USA called Physics for the Life and Health Sciences (1975) was also a success.

Gavin was on the Inter-University Committee that drew up new entrance regulations to Scottish universities when their number increased from four to eight. Thereafter, he was involved in entrance to ­universities, first as a member of the working party on transition from school to university, then on the Scottish ­Universities Council on Entrance where he finished as chairman. His most influential work was undertaken with the Universities ­Central Council on Admissions (UCCA) where he chaired the technical committee and finance committee before becoming vice-chairman of the body in 1983.

He was recognised for his contribution to scholarship and academia by Fellowship of the Institute of Physics (1958), Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1972) and by election as chair of the Committee of Scottish Professors of Physics (1979).

In his later years at Dundee he appeared on University Challenge in a staff team that unsuccessfully competed against the university’s ­students, who had won the trophy in 1983. The ­interaction with Granada ­Television led him to become a trusted writer of hundreds of starter questions for subsequent series.

Gavin’s intellect and interests were not restricted to academia. A longstanding involvement in amateur dramatics led to an invitation to join the board of ­Dundee ­Repertory Theatre. He became chairman in 1975.

At that time, the theatre operated from an old church, after a fire had destroyed the original building, and moves to build a new theatre were in jeopardy because of disputes over the design and escalating costs. Drawing on his considerable negotiating skills, and in collaboration with artistic directors Stephen MacDonald, and then Robert Robertson, a design was agreed and fundraising started.

Gavin and Robert were able to see the project through to a successful ­conclusion in 1982. The new theatre, opened by Peter Ustinov in 1983, stands as a permanent monument to their vision and hard work. He retired from the chairmanship in 1989, having been awarded Fellowship of the Royal ­Society of Arts in 1976.

After retiring in 1988, Gavin became more fully involved with Dundee Bridge Club, ­having first joined in 1956, serving as president twice. He won many club and congress trophies, and notably had a long and successful partnership with Chris Garber. In the last few years, he formed a successful partnership with Bob Ross. He also regularly contributed to Slam magazine, mostly bridge puzzles. His latest series, Could You Have Done Better? and Could You Have Defended Better? will continue for a number of months after his death.

The latter years of his life were spent happily in St Andrews with his companion, continuing to write prolifically and travel regularly. By the time he died, he had published 33 novels, three books of short stories, a book of short science fiction stories, three scientific mysteries and a book on bridge. For many years he contributed detective stories for the Dixon Hawke series in the Sunday Post.

Although his physical health began to fail in his last months, his sharp intellect and humour were undimmed. With the care of his companion, he fulfilled his wish to remain at home in his final weeks before passing away peacefully in his own bed.

Simon Maxwell