Obituary: Professor Arthur Maitland
Wednesday 13 July 1994
ARTHUR MAITLAND was one of the early pioneers of laser physics in Britain, and the founder of the internationally renowned research group in that topic at St Andrews University.
'Matty' Maitland was the only son of a dealer in secondhand books, and books, either the writing or the reading of them, were to be one of the abiding passions of his life. He was born in 1928 in Blackburn, but early on the family moved to Southport, where he was to live for most of the first half of his life. He trained as a schoolteacher at Chester College and taught science for a number of years in local schools. However, his capacity for sustained hard work and his deeply rooted belief in the benefits of continuing education led him to take an external degree in physics at London University in 1956. This was to be the key that unlocked for him the Aladdin's cave of scientific research.
He joined the Metropolitan- Vickers Company at Trafford Park in Manchester in those days when the value of basic research to the prosperity of British industry was still recognised. Under the guidance of Dr (later Professor) Ted Kuffel, a mentor from whom he acquired his characteristic pragmatic approach to scientific research ('Suck it and see' was to remain a guiding principle), he made a substantial contribution to the study of electrical breakdown in vacuum - an area of vital importance to the electricity supply industry.
It was typical of him that during this time he continued to live in Southport, despite the daunting task of commuting daily to central Manchester. By so doing he could be near the sea, and Saturday mornings were often spent with his growing family searching for dewberries among the sand-dunes at Freshfield.
After a brief spell at Hawker Siddeley he moved in 1961 to Newcastle upon Tyne to join the International Research and Development Co (part of CA Parsons & Co). It was a time when the nuclear power industry was in its ascendancy. The challenge of improving power-extraction efficiency in a nuclear plant through the use of a high-temperature generator in which the usual wires were replaced with conducting gas (the magneto-hydrodynamic generator) had been taken up with vigour throughout the technological world, and in Newcastle Maitland established a group studying the underpinning physics (plasma physics) involved in these devices.
It was to be a few years later that the opportunity fully to develop his talents for both scientific research and teaching finally arose. Given that the place in which to do this was also a 'little city, worn and grey, girded round by the grey North Ocean', the lure was to prove irresistible, and in 1963 Maitland came to where he was to remain for the rest of his life, St Andrews.
Appointed to a lecturership in the Department of Physics at the university, he had the foresight to realise that the recent demonstration of the first laser by Theodore Maiman in 1960 promised a whole new area of physical research. Maitland established a team investigating gas lasers (ion and metal vapour lasers) and applications of the wonderful new laser light, in particular in applied spectroscopy (Raman spectroscopy). It was his hallmark that, as well as seeking a fundamental understanding of the devices on which he worked, he followed through their applications in such areas as medicine and pollution monitoring.
The many students who worked with him in those early days of lasers will remember both the excitement and fun that Maitland brought to research. Nowhere was this better epitomised than in the annual pilgrimages to the Physics Exhibitions run by the Institute of Physics at Alexander Palace. A van-load of equipment relating to the latest breakthrough in laser science would embark on the night train from Scotland to London, to be duly assembled as a working exhibit the next day. Maitland was undaunted by any obstacles that might arise in the course of these events; on one occasion the lack of a drain to take the cooling water from a particularly large argon laser was solved by the simple expedient of drilling a hole through the floor and letting the water go where it would.
With Maitland hard work was always rewarded by the quality of the associated leisure pursuits. It was traditional that in the evenings, following a hard day on the exhibition stand, his formidable knowledge of the best eating places in the capital (particularly those purveying curries, for which he had a passion second only to that for books) be put to exhaustive test by his students.
He was subsequently appointed to a senior lecturership (1968), then a readership (1984), and finally became Professor of Applied Physics (1993) in St Andrews. As the scope of his work in lasers grew, so did his other research activities, which came to include optical signal processing, microwave and radio-frequency research, and high-voltage engineering. He was awarded a DSc by the university in 1972, and became a fellow of the Institute of Physics.
His early industrial background meant that throughout his academic career he maintained close links with industry, and he was highly regarded as a consultant. His research publications were complemented by numerous patents, and by three books: Vacuum as an Insulator (with R. Hawley), Quantum Optics (as editor, with SM Kay), and Laser Physics (with MH Dunn).
Arthur Maitland brought the same resolve to his final battle with cancer that he had shown throughout his life when faced with adversity. Although in the end the disease was to defeat him, the lasers in the development of which he played such a key role promise to be vital tools in the ongoing battle against the disease.
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