Obituary: Professor James Topping
Saturday 18 June 1994
JAMES TOPPING was a distinguished physicist, a pioneer in higher education and a former Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University.
Topping's achievements as a university administrator matched the brilliance of his early career. He was an outstanding student of physics at Manchester during the era of Ernest Rutherford, and he completed his PhD in London by the age of 21, his external examiner being Sir Lawrence Bragg, whose son Stephen succeeded him in 1971 as Vice-Chancellor of Brunel. He was awarded a Beit Scientific Research Fellowship during the 'heroic age of physics' as Rutherford called it, and he went on to lecture at Imperial College, in London, and the Manchester College of Technology (now Umist) before being appointed Head of Mathematics and Physics at the Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster).
During these years Topping developed radical views about university teaching based on his observations in Britain and in Europe, and by the time he was appointed Principal of Brunel College, then based in Acton, west London, in 1955, he was convinced that integrated sandwich courses - where a student spends part of the time working in industry and part of the time studying at the college - offered many educational advantages. He also believed that these could only be fully exploited if the sandwich system were adopted exclusively for undergraduate work. Inevitably there were some at Brunel who were concerned at the loss of traditional courses but he was never deflected from his purpose and he realised that the sandwich mode would affect almost every aspect of Brunel's development - curriculum, research, staffing and buildings. His influence was profound during the period of Brunel's transformation into a university, and he became its first Vice-Chancellor in 1963.
As a lecturer he inspired students with his lucid presentation and attention to detail. The same clarity of expression is found in all his writings for example his physics textbooks. Topping's Intermediate Mechanics (1949) has been used by tens of thousands of sixth-formers. His concern for accuracy is shown in his monograph Errors of Observation and their Treatment (1955), an admirably concise treatment of this important subject.
He brought the same qualities of energy and clear exposition to his work as an educationalist and administrator, and presented a case with care and precision so that it could stand on its inherent merits. There was no place for gamesmanship in his advocacy and he achieved that rare balance of persistence and patience that is needed to gain acceptance for radical ideas.
During the period when relations between students and university authorities were sometimes strained he showed by his own example that the way forward was by rational discussion. Despite the growing numbers, he knew many students by name and he never failed to respond when his support was needed on behalf of a single student or the whole student body. When asked to speak on lighter occasions his contribution was witty and distinctive.
At the end of his academic career he made several strenuous visits to Africa and India to advise on higher education and at home he served as chairman of the Nuffield Science Consultative Committee, the Hillingdon Group Hospital Managements Committee, the London Conference on Overseas Students, the Council of the Roehampton Institute of Higher Education and the Council of the Polytechnic (now University) of the South Bank.
His first wife died in 1963 and he later married Phyllis Iles, celebrating their silver wedding four years ago. He derived great pleasure in creating a garden at their cottage at the foot of the North Downs. He eschewed fame and was known among neighbours as 'the man who would help with sums'.
His sight began to fail a few years ago and the specialist eventually asked him to register as a blind person, adding, to soften the blow, 'You see, it will help the statistics.' He said to me, 'How could I, as a mathematician, possibly object to anything that would help the statistics?'
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