Obituary: Lord Tedder
Thursday 24 February 1994
THROUGHOUT his life John Tedder strove with quiet dignity and success, as a distinguished chemist and teacher of chemistry, to be a person in his own right despite the awesome achievements of his father and grandfather.
His grandfather, Sir Arthur Tedder, entered the Inland Revenue department in 1871 as a clerk and spent an increasingly distinguished life in the financial service of the Crown. He was Chief Inspector from 1906 to 1911 of Customs and Excise, and above all others was the official responsible for the organisation of the machinery of the first old-age pension scheme in the world. Working directly to both Asquith and Lloyd George as Chancellor, he was an imaginative innovator who became one of Lloyd George's favourite senior officials. Arthur Tedder occupied the key post of Commissioner of Customs and Excise from the watershed budget of 1909 with its tax on property until the end of the First World War.
John Tedder's father, also Arthur, was not only Marshal of the Royal Air Force but General Eisenhower's deputy as Supreme Commander in Europe 1943-45 and heaped with honours and official positions. John's elder brother, another Arthur, was killed on active service with the RAF in 1943, the same year that his mother, Rosalinde Maclardy, a descendant of Scots who arrived in Australia shortly after Botany Bay, died prematurely.
This was the background against which a 17-year-old schoolboy at Dauntsey's School in Wiltshire absconded from his school and anonymously joined the RAF under age. Alas, John Tedder's service was to last three days, when his defective eyesight excluded him from military service and led to the discovery of his identity. He was thereupon despatched to his father's old college of Magdalene, Cambridge, to read Natural Sciences. With the advantage of being extremely clever and determinedly diligent, and having travelled widely in childhood, particularly in his early teens when his father was Air Officer Commanding the Royal Air Force in the Far East, Tedder attained an excellent degree. Interest in fluorine chemistry took him to postgraduate work at Birmingham University and an academic apprenticeship under the wing of Professor Maurice Stacey FRS, then a world leader in the field.
In 1943, after the death of Rosalinde, who had asked on her deathbed that he should marry again quickly, Arthur Tedder married his service driver, my father's close cousin, the vigorous and charming 'Toppy' Seaton, sister of Bruce Seaton, who used to play Fabian of the Yard on television. John Tedder and his young stepmother got on exceedingly well and the family were delighted when Tedder married Peggy Growcott, a Birmingham girl, in 1952. For more than 40 years she was to be a wonderful wife and helpmate to him and a veritable angel over the 12 years of Parkinson's disease and six years of Alzheimer's disease which were to throw Tedder's later life into increasing darkness.
After 15 productive years in the chemistry department at Birmingham University, specialising in valence theory - concerned with electrons of an atom involved when it forms a bond with another atom, in other words those in the outer shell - Tedder was appointed Roscoe Professor of Chemistry at Dundee University. He was one of those who are credited with laying the foundation for an extremely distinguished department of biochemistry (five-star on the recent university rating).
In 1969, having been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, he was, at the behest of Malcolm Knox, Principal of St Andrews, enticed to the Purdie Professorship of Chemistry in the ancient university, a post he held for the next 20 years. At first he was highly successful and reckoned to be a brilliant teacher. His book Basic Organic Chemistry (1966) was translated into Arabic, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish and for years was required reading in many university chemistry departments. Tedder contributed to a wide range of scientific journals, and those in a position to judge all refer to his clarity of mind in those years.
I used to sit with him very often on the plane backwards and forwards between Edinburgh and London. One of his time-consuming and abiding interests was the development of the Open University and his book The Chemical Bond (1978) was designed very much with Open University students in mind.
At what should have been the zenith of his productive powers in the late 1970s, Tedder began, to the dismay of his friends, to do and say odd things which almost certainly deprived him of the Fellowship of the Royal Society which much informed opinion in Scotland and in his field of chemistry thought that he had long since deserved. (It was also in the days when it was doubly hard to become a Fellow of the Royal Society if you lived and worked outside the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle.) Unidentified at first, Parkinson's disease had begun to take its grip.
I used to go and see old Lord Tedder in the last years of his life, severely crippled at Well Farm in Banstead, Surrey. On more than one occasion the Air Marshal sighed, 'I hope to God this never happens to my John.' It did.
I shall remember John Tedder as a gentle 18-year-old devoid of side, who was kind to me in childhood and who later became a caring family man and teacher, a gentleman in adversity, sustained by a heroine of a wife.
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