Obituary: Sir Sam Curran

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
SAM CURRAN was one of the great Scots of the 20th century - in the tradition of the heroes of the 18th-century Scottish enlightenment.

He was the dynamo behind the creation of the hugely successful University of Strathclyde, the child of the Royal College of Science and Technology in Glasgow which had trained many of the great engineers and scientists of the 19th and first half of the 20th century.

In the spring of 1963, two of my young constituents got into deep trouble at the Royal College. An MP's letter to the Principal produced a phone call at 8.30 the following morning: "Can you come and see me?" Within minutes of entering the room, I sensed that I was in the presence of one of the most effective, superbly well-informed, and humane academic heavyweights.

His eyes twinkling behind his light horn-rimmed spectacles, Sam Curran wanted to do his utmost for two first-year students from working-class families, the first from those families ever to get near higher education - and did to their enormous benefit. He told me that no "ceiling" should be placed on numbers of students in higher education. He held the passionate belief that every young person who wanted to try higher education should be given a chance, and his messianic belief in Strathclyde University gave practical implementation to that belief and was a vehicle for carrying out what was a noble goal.

As soon as our business was finished in relation to my erring constituents, it became obvious that the reason for the telephone call and the early summons to meet him was that he saw the chance of recruiting a young Scottish Member of Parliament to the cause and ideals of technical education as he saw them. As Prime Minister, Harold Wilson told me a year later, "Sam is one of the people in higher education whose good opinion of our policy I really covet." He was one of the role models for those of us who believed in the white heat of the technological revolution.

Sam Curran was born one of the two remarkable sons of John Curran, a Fifer, and Sarah Crowe, from Ballymena, Co Antrim. The other, Robert Curran, was for 20 years Leith Professor of Pathology at Birmingham University. The Currans moved to Lanarkshire and Sam became dux (head boy) of Wishaw High School. His lifelong championing of the importance of science and maths teachers in school he ascribed to his own good fortune of being superbly taught by dedicated teachers at Wishaw.

First class honours in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy (physics) led to a PhD at St John's College, Cambridge, of which he was to become an honorary fellow 30 years later. At the Cavendish Laboratory he had the good fortune not only to have Lord Rutherford as his head of department but to work closely under C.T.R. Wilson, Nobel prizewinner and inventor of the cloud chamber, and Harry Jones, father of Dame Angela Rumbold MP.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Curran went to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. He worked on the development of long-range centimetre radar and the proximity fuse. Among his colleagues was Joan Strothers, whom he had known at Cambridge and who was an expert on the scattering of strips of tin foil in the air with the result that enemy radar was disrupted. It was called "Operation Window". Curran married Joan Strothers in November 1940. It was to be a marriage of 57 outstandingly happy years. She was pivotal to his success as a scientist and as a vice- chancellor.

In 1944 Curran was sent to the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, California, to work on the development of what was to become the atomic bomb. While working for the Manhattan Project he invented the Scintillation Counter, an instrument for measuring radio activity. This achievement was greatly praised by his old mentor C.T.R. Wilson, than whom no man was in a better position to judge.

Curran returned to the Physics department of Glasgow University at the special request of Professor Philip Dee, one of his former senior colleagues in the Cavendish and by that time Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow.

He worked at Harwell from 1955 to 1958 and then became chief scientist of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston for a year. He told me that he had pangs of conscience when he saw the pictures and heard the songs of the Aldermaston marchers and that this determined in part his decision to return to Glasgow as Principal of the Royal College of Science and Technology. I won't say that he felt guilty but after talking to his great friend Sir William Penney he thought he shared some responsibility for a substantial part of the work on the hydrogen bomb.

Much later in life he told me at a Strathclyde dinner, "I didn't agonise to the extent that Sir James Chadwick [isolator of the neutron] agonised over his part in making Hiroshima and Nagasaki possible. But I did wonder where the ultimate results of my work and that of my colleagues would lead."

Paying tribute to Curran, Professor Sir John Arbuthnott, the present distinguished Principal of Strathclyde, said: "Curran transformed the Royal College - itself a internationally renowned institution - into a university. Throughout his many years as Principal, he never lost sight of the ideals of Strathclyde's founder, John Anderson, and insisted that the university should usefully serve society in all its manifestations.

"Sir Sam insisted that its graduates should be trained and educated men and women who would respond to industry and their professions' changing circumstances. He was a man of vision and the seeds of Strathclyde's current success in commercialising its research activities were sown by him back in the Sixties and Seventies."

Curran had many wider interests. He was a member of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, 1962-65, of the Science Research Council, 1965- 68, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland, 1967- 77, and Honorary President of the Scottish Polish Cultural Association. His links with the Polish community were a part of his life, as was his work for Enable, a charity concerned with the mentally handicapped. Hugh Stewart, its Deputy Director, pointed out that it was in recognition of his efforts for those with learning disabilities that Enable's office and leisure facilities have been named Curran House.

"Curran had a powerful combination of pragmatism, passion and vision," says Sir William Stewart, formerly the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser. "Scotland is much the poorer for his passing."

Samuel Crowe Curran, physicist and university administrator: born Ballymena, Co Antrim 23 May 1912; FRSE 1947; FRS 1953; Principal, Royal College of Science and Technology, Glasgow 1959-64; Chairman, Advisory Committee on Medical Research 1962-75; Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Strathclyde University 1964-80; Chief Scientific Adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland 1967-77; Kt 1970; married 1940 Joan Strothers (three sons, one daughter); died Glasgow 15 February 1998.

Comments