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.

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