Obituary:Sir Norman Alexander

Norman Alexander, in addition to his distinguished work as a physicist, was instrumental in the establishment of many of the modern Commonwealth universities, including Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria, and the Universities of the West Indies, the South Pacific and Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Alexander was born in Mangapiko, New Zealand, one of eight children of second- generation immigrant farmers from England, Scotland and Denmark. Like all farm children of pre-electricity, pre-tractor days, he worked barefoot on his allotted farm tasks, developing the personal resilience, the practical approach to problems and the understanding and respect for Maori and other cultures that marked his career.

A brilliant scholar from his days at the village school, he graduated from Auckland University with first class honours in physics in 1927, and came to Cambridge in 1930 on a two-year scholarship to the Cavendish Laboratory under his compatriot Ernest Rutherford. When this scholarship expired he funded the rest of his PhD through a post as Demonstrator in Physics at King's College, London.

In 1936, newly married to a fellow PhD student Elizabeth Caldwell, he moved to Raffles College in Singapore as Professor of Physics. There, one of his extra-curricular projects was to develop, for the Royal Navy, his own method and tools for plotting the projections they needed in setting up a chain of radio direction-finding stations. Once launched on the work, he set about designing and making a machine that would draw great circle bearings plotted on Mercator charts, the method the Navy preferred: until his intervention this had involved solving thousands of spherical triangles, a formidable task in the days before calculators.

Such skills received further honing first in Changi Gaol and later in the notorious Sime Road internment camp, after the fall of Singapore to Japan in 1942. Fellow prisoners remember Alexander's lectures in physics, his sharp intellect, his scientific thinking, ingenious practicality, humour and scrupulously fair humanity. His daily argument with a cell mate was set up for the express purpose of intellectual survival under brutalising conditions.

It was in Changi too that he worked with fellow prisoners in building a salt evaporation plant, from materials permitted to be scrounged from immediately outside Changi's walls or made by the ingenuity and skills of fellow inmates. Before he was moved to Sime Road, their small industrial plant was providing the camp hospital with surgical spirit (fermented from fungi found to grow on rice and then distilled) and other products including forms of the antacid Milk of Magnesia and "Milton" sterilising fluid.

He returned to Singapore after his release as soon as his health permitted, to join his colleagues in restarting teaching at Raffles College. Entrance examinations had to be set but nobody could be sure what students had been able to study during the occupation. To optimise their chances he set the following question: "You may have found none of the questions on this paper to your liking. If that is the case, set yourself a question and answer it."

In 1952, Alexander moved to Nigeria to take up the post of Professor of Physics at University College, Ibadan, an internal college of London University that became Ibadan University on Nigeria's independence in 1960. Here his department developed magnetic and ionospheric geophysical research, contributing to the International Geophysical Year 1957-58 and becoming one of the two satellite tracking stations of the new US satellite programme. The magnetic station he established to his own design became one of the most important geophysical observatories at low latitudes and his first "home-grown" PhD students went on to become distinguished geophysicists in the international academic community.

Soon after the death of his wife in 1958 and his remarriage to Constance Geary, Professor of Education at Ibadan, he moved to the Middle East Technical University, in Ankara, to teach engineering physics, but gave up the post after a year on the invitation to become first Vice-Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, Northern Nigeria, a post he held until 1966.

From 1966, Alexander was heavily involved as a kind of "freelance Vice- Chancellor", offering his expertise to help in the setting-up of other Commonwealth universities, including the University of the West lndies in 1966 and the new University of the South Pacific in Fiji from 1966 to 1968.

He returned to Britain in 1968, but his appointment as Advisor to the Ministry of Overseas Development in 1970 took him to the development of another federal university, that of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, where he authored the Alexander Report (1970) on the development of university campuses in each country and the unified development of higher education and vocational and teacher training. In 1971 he was appointed by the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs to the Governing Body of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, a post he held until his retirement in 1973.

Villagers of Redisham in Suffolk, where he lived after his return to Britain, remember some of Alexander's practical engineering skills, as applied to their bus shelter, in the repairs to the church using geological specimens definitely not from Suffolk, and in the militarily accurate, fibreglass Roman soldiers' helmets made for the children's nativity play. On the death of his second wife, he moved to Devonshire, where he married Evelyn Clark, an ex- education officer from Northern Nigeria. Here he maintained the house and garden through a unique blend of scientific principle, practical skill and the use of New Zealand fencing wire, while a succession of nurses and visitors recruited to help with his wife's failing health were driven into the ground by his continued passion for hard argument. Until the last few days of his life, he maintained his intellectual work by writing up his unique experience of young Commonwealth Universities (with a book planned) and analysing the milking pattern of the herd of cows visible from his window.

He was a man of enormous integrity, approachability, and perceptiveness who could and would argue the finer points of the late Beethoven quartets, the rigging of Nelson's ships, or the military details of Alexander's battles, with equal enthusiasm and expertise.

Norman Stanley Alexander, physicist and university administrator: born Mangapiko, New Zealand 7 October 1907; Professor of Physics, Raffles College, Singapore 1936-52 (University of Malaya from 1949); Professor of Physics, University College, Ibadan, Nigeria 1952-60; CBE 1959; Vice-Chancellor, Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria 1961-66; Kt 1966; married 1935 Elizabeth Caldwell (one son, two daughters; died 1958), 1959 Constance Geary (died 1991), 1992 Evelyn Clark; died 26 March 1997.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Lane Del Rey performing on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
people... but none of them helped me get a record deal, insists Lana Del Rey
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Arts and Entertainment
British author Howard Jacobson has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Systems Analyst (Technical, UML, UI)

£30000 - £40000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Senior Private Client Solicitor - Gloucestershire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - We are makin...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Support Developer

£50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A unique and rare opport...

Insight Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k – North London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum plus 23 days holiday and pension scheme: Clearwater ...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn