Obituary: Patrick Johnson

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The Independent Online
Patrick Johnson was someone who used to be described approvingly as an "all-rounder". He was a rowing Blue at Oxford, and began a distinguished scientific career there as a physicist. He was a Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College for 20 years, interrupted by his wartime service in Operations, for which he was appointed OBE. He was also an experienced yachtsman, a trained pilot and a first-class shot.

His whole life might have been rather different. He went to Dartmouth in 1917 at the age of 13, but when the war was over and the Royal Navy being cut back his father urged him to leave and go to Tonbridge School instead. From there, he went up to Oxford and read physics at Magdalen.

He had learned to row at Tonbridge, and rowed in the Magdalen First Eight for three years. In those days, Magdalen had been amongst the three top crews on the river for 50 years, a record unbeaten by any other college. Johnson stroked the 1926 crew when they regained second position, and was Captain in his final year. He was also in the university boat that year, but it was in the middle of a disastrous period in Oxford rowing when Cambridge won every race except one for 18 years.

He spent a postgraduate year at the Sorbonne before returning to Oxford in 1928 where he was appointed a Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen, and University Lecturer in Physics. At that time there was rivalry within the department headed by Professor John Townsend, between the theoretical physicists in the Clarendon Laboratory and the electricians in the Electrical Laboratory. A course of lectures on "High Vacuum Physics", advertised by the latter, is said to have been countered by another on "Higher Vacuum Physics" by the former. As an electrician, one of Johnson's interests at that time was the development of electro-magnetism.

He was a tutor for almost 20 years at Magdalen before and after the Second World War, well remembered, not only by his pupils but by many undergraduates. He was the only Fellow of the college this century to have been a rowing Blue and was an energetic and legendary supporter of the Boat Club. He coached many good Magdalen crews through the 1930s, and also coached the Oxford crew in 1933.

The Magdalen SCR at that time had many formidable members. Johnson played golf with Harry Weldon, sailed with John Morris, and lived in the company of Fellow bachelors like C.S. Lewis and Bruce McFarlane. His best-known pupil and closest friend was James Griffiths, lifelong Fellow and later President of Magdalen; they were regulars at the Lamb and Flag together and at the back bar of the King's Arms.

Despite Dartmouth, and flying Bristol Fighters with the University Air Squadron, when the Second World War came Johnson was in the Army. He worked initially on radar operations, and later served as Deputy Scientific Adviser to Field Marshal Montgomery in 21st Army Group.

After the war, Johnson returned to Magdalen, and was Vice-President in 1946-47. To the surprise of many, he then accepted the appointment of Director of Studies at RAF College, Cranwell, where he remained until 1952. He told a friend at the time that after five years away from Oxford he found the prospect of keeping pace with the teaching of physics somewhat daunting and worried that he might not be abe to offer his students the support they needed. He had always been known more for his dedicated teaching than for his own scientific research.

His next appointment was in India, where he was head of the Institute of Armament Studies in Poona from 1952 to 1955. He returned to London to become Scientific Adviser to the Army Council, and ended his scientific career as Assistant Scientific adviser to SHAPE. Far from retirement, he then spent eight years with the Educational Foundation for Visual Aids as Head of their Experimental Development Unit, from 1962 to 1970.

His many friends at Oxford will remember him as an energetic and practical man; often gruff but always warmhearted; critical but incisive; and modest but determined in all he did. Academic pressures today would make it difficult for an all-rounder like Pat Johnson to win a Fellowship and Lectureship at Oxford, but the contribution which he made in the first half of a long and busy life kept his name alive there for another 50 years, during which he remained, as all had known him, an avuncular bachelor.

Peter Fullerton

Patrick Johnson, physicist: born 24 May 1904; Fellow and Lecturer in Natural Science, Magdalen College, Oxford 1928-47, Dean 1934-38, Vice- President 1946-47; OBE 1945; Director of Studies, RAF College, Cranwell 1947-52; Dean, Institute of Armament Studies, India 1952-55; Scientific Adviser to the Army Council 1955-58; Assistant Scientific Adviser, SHAPE 1958-62; Head of Experimental Development Unit, Educational Foundation for Visual Aids 1962-70; died London 29 October 1996.

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