Obituary: Lord Dainton

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Frederick Sydney Dainton, chemist: born Sheffield 11 November 1914; University Demonstrator in Chemistry Cambridge University 1944-46, H.O. Jones Lecturer in Physical Chemistry 1946-50; Fellow, St Catharine's College, Cambridge 1945-50; Professor of Physical Chemistry, Leeds University 1950-65; FRS 1957; Chairman, Association for Radiation Research 1964-66; Vice-Chancellor, Nottingham University 1965-70; President, Faraday Society 1965-67; Chairman, Advisory Committee on Scientific and Technical Information 1966-70; Chairman, National Libraries Board 1968-69; Chairman, Council for Scientific Policy 1969-72; Dr Lee's Professor of Chemistry, Oxford University 1970-73; Kt 1971; Chairman, Advisory Board for Research Councils 1972-73; President, Chemical Society 1972-73; Chairman, University Grants Committee 1973-78; Chairman, British Library Board 1973-85; Chairman, National Radiological Protection Board 1973-85; Chancellor, Sheffield University 1978-97; President, Society of Designer Craftsmen 1985-97; created 1986 Baron Dainton; President, Arthritis and Rheumatism Council for Research 1988-97; married 1942 Barbara Wright (one son, two daughters); died Oxford 5 December 1997.

Among Fred Dainton's many contributions to public life was his chairmanship of the Advisory Committee on Science and Technology Information from 1966 to 1970, and his chairmanship of the committee leading to the Enquiry into the Flow of Candidates in Science and Technology into Higher Education presented to the then Secretary of State, Patrick Gordon-Walker, in January 1968.

This was one of the most important and acted-upon reports of the decade, partly because it was so well and concisely written. Dainton argued that there should be a broad span of studies in the sixth forms of schools and that in consequence irreversible decisions for or against science, engineering and technology should be postponed as late as possible. The son of an illiterate father who none the less passionately believed in education, Dainton held it sacrosanct that the avenue to educational success should be kept open.

He recommended that all pupils should study mathematics until they left school and that the teaching of mathematics should concern itself not only with training for discipline of thought and for logical reasoning, but also to show the effect of associated mathematical thinking with one or more of the experimental or engineering sciences, or with economics or other studies. This was a new concept in the late 1960s.

He underlined the urgent need to infuse breadth, humanity and up-to-dateness in the science curriculum and its teaching; that schools and local education authorities should take steps to ensure that the majority of pupils in secondary education should come into early contact with up-to-the-moment, relevant and attractive teaching of science within a five-year period; and that there should be provision on a co-operative basis, between schools if necessary, of high-quality introductory courses of the highest quality in science and mathematics for younger pupils.

He thought that universities should consider a further range of courses designed to attract into science and engineering able students who were not committed to these fields of study, but who were otherwise qualified to benefit from "ab initio" courses in them at university level. All this may sound no great shakes in 1997. It was pretty brand new in 1967 and there are two generations of students who owe more than they know to Fred Dainton.

In April 1965, I was asked by Nottingham University Labour Club to speak on the Wilson government's science policy. Speech and questions went swimmingly. Then a man with a quizzical expression and modest demeanour rose slowly at the back of the meeting - and proceeded to put the half-dozen most awkward and penetrating questions that could be put. Hugely disconcerted and metaphorically perspiring I sat down and frantically whispered to Mrs Cattermole, the chairman for the evening, "Who in heaven's name was that?" "Our new Vice-Chancellor," she smirked, "and his name is Fred Dainton, and he's charming, and he's devastating."

The first time I ever heard Dainton's name had been when canvassing in the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles constituency in 1958. I was invited into the home of C.T.R. Wilson, him of the Cloud Chamber (the great experiment enabling atomic particles to be traced), who asked that if ever I became a Member of Parliament I should take advice from a pupil of his at Sidney Sussex, called Fred Dainton.

This I did for a third of a century. I saw Dainton at parliamentary and scientific committee meetings in Westminster Hall, I saw him at the Foundation for Science and Technology meetings in the beautiful rooms of the Royal Society: and throughout he continued to be the most articulate - and, yes, charming and devastating - devil's advocate. I have never seen anyone put a point of view so forcefully torpedoing what others have said and yet being constructive and giving a minimum of personal offence.

As a friend he was a politician's dream. Phone him and he would give you, regardless of your party label, a practical opinion based on distilled knowledge. On some occasions he would say "I am not as well-informed as I ought to be - I will find out from my friend Professor so-and-so", and he did just that, punctiliously and quickly.

Dainton was born in 1914, in Sheffield. His father was a craftsman mason, himself born in 1857, 13 years before compulsory education was introduced, and who therefore could be excused from being unable to read or write. However George Dainton had insisted on his own children's reading to him much of what was best in English literature. Fred told me that as a seven- year-old he had started reading to his then 65-year-old father and that this gave him a facility and confidence in language for coherent expression that was to be valuable throughout his life.

He won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford, where he was remembered for swimming at Parson's Pleasure each morning of term at 7.45am. This was probably the only time in his life when his behaviour might have been thought to have been "mad", for actually he was the most rational of men. At school he had chanced to read The Kinetics of Chemical Change in Gaseous Systems, an advanced work which might have stretched an honours chemistry graduate. Dainton's exceptional mind was fascinated by both the contents and the style of the book. The author, Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, was Professor of Physical Chemistry at Oxford and this tempted Dainton to try for a university place from a school which had never before sent an undergraduate to Oxford.

He was greatly fortunate in that the tutor at St John's was Dr H.W. (later Sir "Tommy") Thompson. It was Thompson who initiated Dainton into studies of chemical reaction rates, a topic as wide as chemistry itself. In this field for over 30 years and latterly with groups of research students, many of whom became eminent in their own right, Dainton published some 200 research papers characterised by unusual thoroughness and depth of analysis. Years later, as Chancellor of Sheffield University, he was to say: "The thing I treasure most of all is the regard of my former students, who invite me to visit them all over the world."

In elementary gas reactions Dainton struggled with the intricacies of chain reactions, on which he wrote monographs, and with the complications arising from photochemical activation, both features encountered in many studies of anionic polymerisation.

When, in 1965, I visited Chalk River in Canada, Professor W.B. Lewis asked after Dainton. This was a natural question because from 1945 he had studied the chemical effects of radiation at Chalk River and made important contributions to a field of great biological, including medical, significance. Physiological changes occur in an aqueous milieu where all radiation harder than the ultra- violet produces electrons and other ionised particles. Dainton was one of the pioneers of the aqueous electron, extensively exploring its chemical aspects. Even to the chemical kineticist this was a topic of disheartening complexity with some of its initial stages occurring in less than a billionth of a second.

Dainton more than most chemists was interested in the medical effects of his work. As he told the House of Lords on 25 February 1997:

For well over 40 years I have had a deep personal and professional interest in research in clinical medicine

carried out by staff of university med-

ical schools and institutes. For various periods in my life - for example, as chairman for the Advisory Board for Research Councils and its predecessor, the Council for Scientific Policy, and subsequently chairman of the University Grants Committee - I was responsible for the allocation of public funds to be used for that purpose.

Dainton told the Lords that he had learnt many lessons - first and foremost was that the quality of future patient treatment rested upon the quality and extent of medical education and research today, which in turn were increasingly and critically dependent upon basic scientific research. That was why he had always advocated close collaboration between high- quality departments of biological and physical sciences with medical schools and institutes. No man in post-war Britain did more to bring this about.

His colleagues in chemistry recognised his distinction. He became President of the Faraday Society and of the Royal Chemical Society, who bestowed on him its greatest honour, the Faraday Lectureship. Cornell appointed him to the prestigious George Baker Lectureship. For 40 years he was a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1969 he was given the Davy Medal.

In 1937, he left for Cambridge to study reaction kinetics under the Nobel prizewinner R.G.W. Norrish. It was one of Dainton's gifts that he could handle difficult and brilliant scientists, and he got on well with Norrish. Supported by awards from the Goldsmiths' Company, he joined Sidney Sussex College.

At the age of 36 Dainton became Professor of Physical Chemistry at Leeds. There, at Cookridge, he directed research at a special radiological unit before becoming Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham in 1965, which took him into the stratosphere of the British academic establishment, of which he was to be a central figure for four decades. He told me at a meeting at the Foundation for Science and Technology over the dinner table that the only reason he had gone to Nottingham was so that he could establish a medical school at the university. He was not exaggerating.

The years 1965-70 were ones of student turbulence, and unlike the formidable Michael Swann in Edinburgh and many other distinguished Vice-Chancellors Dainton was adept at dealing deftly with militant students. I heard the story that he had on one fraught occasion quoted from Mao's Little Red Book: "You should respect your teachers; they know more than you do." Dainton assured me that this was not apocryphal but true.

From Nottingham he was tempted back to Oxford to succeed Hinshelwood, the inspirer of his earlier attachment to reaction kinetics, as Dr Lee's Professor of Chemistry. Although the Dr Lee's chair had notable prestige - Hinshelwood's sole predecessor had been Frederick Soddy, also a Nobel Laureate - it did not offer the range or quality of influence which Dainton, by now Sir Frederick, was able to exert. Lord Porter of Luddenham, who shared a laboratory with Dainton "when we were both young" at Cambridge, remembers his commenting that "being professor at Oxford was a position of considerable influence and little power. Fred," says Porter, "liked power." After three years, in 1973, he became Chairman of the University Grants Committee.

The UGC was the long- established intermediary between the Treasury and the UK universities, and the body which distributed government funding to the individual institutes - then already numbering 33. In this key position he had much contact with government circles, including with one Minister for Education, Margaret Thatcher, herself an Oxford chemistry graduate.

Porter remembers Dainton as a good tennis partner at Cambridge; the same qualities of nimbleness and dexterity, which stood him in good stead in his laboratory, were related to a lifelong admiration for craftsmanship, in which his illiterate father had excelled.

Of his multitude of interests one other must be mentioned: he was Chairman of the British Library Board from 1978 to 1985. It was under his guidance that the assessment was made which resulted in the British Museum Library's being transformed into the British Library and taking into account the impact of electronic technologies.

After becoming a life peer in 1986, Dainton established himself in Parliament, where he was immensely popular amongst all parties. He was married to Barbara Wright, herself a research zoologist of distinction, who with a son and two daughters survives him.