Sir John Maddox: Scientist who edited 'Nature' magazine for 22 years

The good opinion of Sir John Maddox was sought by serious scientists of all disciplines, not only in Britain but throughout the world.

No wonder – as the universally respected editor of the journal Nature, Maddox often decided whether to publish, or not to publish their work on the latest frontiers of their subjects.

Maddox knew a great deal himself, especially about chemistry and physics. In any area with which he was not immediately conversant, he knew instantly who to consult. For more than 40 years, he was an arbiter extraordinaire; he was not only a man of instinctively interesting and sometimes unusual judgement, but of demonic energy in making sure that important new scientific papers were published quickly.

The success of cutting-edge British science in the quarter of a century after 1966 owes much to two very different men driving through expeditious publication of the latest research – the MP Bob Maxwell, with Pergamon Press, and John Maddox with Nature. In 2000, in recognition of his work, Maddox was made the first in the category of honorary fellows of the Royal Society. "Maddox made a real impact on science, particularly in his capacity as editor of Nature," Sir Michael Atiyah OM, the President of the Royal Society at the time, told me. "There was no question that as a major figure he was a clear case for honorary membership, in the company of men of the stature of Sir David Attenborough."

He was also the doyen of those of us who had the task of writing in the cause of the public understanding of science. He was generous and supportive of us – an encourager of others, provided he thought their proverbial heart was in the right place. As a weekly columnist for New Scientist between 1968 and 2005, I was among a number who from time to time received cryptic notes from Maddox, with a photocopy of what we had written. The notes – "Umph, I don't think so", "Are you quite sure?", "I just wonder... " – might have read quite differently if written by a less kindly man. My response was inevitably a phone call to Maddox, who would explain the basis of his doubt and more than that, tell me who I should talk to.

I found him particularly congenial in one respect: he never showed a trace of the impatience, and often the attitude bordering on contempt, that scientists tend to have for politicians. "After all," he once told me, "some wretched individuals have to make formal decisions on behalf of the public and the taxpayer, and better it be that they should be elected persons rather than anyone else."

John Royden Maddox was born the son of a blast furnace man working in an aluminium plant near Swansea. From Gowerton School he won a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, where, as an 18-year-old, he was mentored by Alexander Smith Russell, the Student of Christ Church in charge of chemistry, and, a little later, by Professor Charles Coulson, who in 1947 was appointed from Oxford to be professor of theoretical physics at King's College, London.

It was partly on account of Coulson, and partly, it has to be said, because Maddox had organised a riotous party in the physical chemistry laboratory, which offended the austere figure of the Doctor Lee's Professor of Chemistry, Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, that Maddox saw his future away from Oxford. At King's College, where he switched from chemistry to physics, he formed what was to be a lifelong friendship with the young professor of mathematics, Hermann Bondi.

Maddox formed genuine friendships with many distinguished scientists. From King's, he went as a lecturer in theoretical physics to the University of Manchester, where he came into contact with another figure who was to be hugely influential in his life, Professor Patrick Blackett. In 1955 he was tempted to join the Manchester Guardian as their science correspondent, where he remained until he was poached by the Nuffield Science Teaching Project to be their director in 1964.

Sir John Rowlinson, FRS Doctor Lee's Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Oxford from 1974-93, explained to me why Maddox made the move from theoretical physics to journalism. Maddox told his colleague Christopher Longuet-Higgins that he had solved the three-dimensional Ising problem. Rowlinson was at a conference in Paris in 1949 where this "exciting discovery" provoked such huge interest that Maddox was asked to fly to Paris.

However, faced with interrogation by the Norwegian future Nobel Prize-winner, Lars Onsager, and Professor John Kirkwood, of Yale University, it was clear the problem was unsolved – as it has been to this day.

Rowlinson and Professor Bob Williams, Napier Royal Society Research Professor at Oxford from 1974-91, suspect Maddox's confidence took a knock and he consequently decided to accept the offer from the Manchester Guardian.

In the spring of 1975, I was invited by the Leeds University chemistry society to speak about the then Labour government's science policy. Sir Edward Boyle, the Secretary of State for Education and Science from 1962-64, and the vice-chancellor of Leeds, invited me to stay the night after the meeting. Over a glass of brandy, he told me a story that reflected huge credit in different ways both on Maddox and on Harold Macmillan.

According to Boyle, in 1966 the publishers of the failing magazine Nature, Macmillan, decided that they would like to try to restore the title to its former eminence. Maddox, then in his third year as director of the Nuffield Science Teaching Project, was one of the names put forward as a potential editor. His publishing colleagues approached their boss, Harold Macmillan, somewhat tentatively, for it had been Maddox, as a young, astute Guardian journalist who created a huge problem for Macmillan as Prime Minister over the 1957 fire at the Windscale nuclear plant. Maddox, singularly, had asked the technically pertinent questions of his source (almost certainly the Delphic Sir William Penney) about the accident.

However, Macmillan told his publishing colleagues that, far from ruling Maddox out, the journalist who had caused him so much grief might just be the right man for the job. Macmillan phoned Boyle. Boyle's advice was that Maddox would be an interesting, if risky choice, something that appealed to Macmillan, and Maddox was duly appointed.

Certainly he was a risk. Williams told me of Maddox's cheeky streak and that sometimes he would do things purely for devilment. There was nothing he liked so much as upsetting apple carts that deserved to be upset. Above all, he was a champion of the underdog. I know this from personal experience. Having been had up at the bar of the House of Commons in 1968 over the Porton Down cause célèbre, with the speaker putting his black cap on to rebuke me, Maddox took the view that the issue I raised, about chemical and biological weapons, was of greater interest than the parliamentary mumbo-jumbo. He was the friend of many in adversity.



Sir John Royden Maddox, writer, broadcaster and journalist: born Penllergaer, near Swansea, 27 November 1925; Lecturer, Theoretical Physics, University of Manchester, 1949-55; Science Correspondent, Manchester Guardian, 1955-64; Assistant Director, Nuffield Foundation and Co-ordinator, Nuffield Foundation Science Teaching Project, 1964-66; Editor of 'Nature' magazine, 1966-73 and 1980-1995; Director, Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1968-73; Director, Maddox Publications, 1973-1980; married 1949 Nancy Fanning (died 1960, one son, one daughter), 1960 Brenda Power Murphy (one son, one daughter); died London, 12 April 2009.

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album