Obituary: Sir Gordon Cox
Monday 01 July 1996
He was the son of Ernest Henry Cox, a man of varied occupations including that of a market gardener, which may have been responsible for his son's respect for the productive potential of soil when prudently husbanded, and also a man of varied fortunes, including a period of bankruptcy in which the family "all managed", in a way which may have strengthened the boy's natural steadiness and fortitude.
From the City of Bath Boys' School he proceeded to Bristol University to read Physics. The commodious and well-equipped Wills Physics Laboratory was under the direction of Professor A.M. Tyndall, who was determined to make a world-class department and who succeeded brilliantly because of his nose for talented young people and his persuasive tongue.
Cox remained proud of Bristol physics throughout his life. He was early drawn to the study of the arrangement of atoms in crystals. The method of achieving this by X-ray diffraction had been given a sound foundation by Sir William Bragg and his son Lawrence, for which they shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915. By the mid-Twenties Lawrence had established in Manchester a research school in X-ray crystallography, mainly of minerals and metals, and his father was Director of the Davy- Faraday Laboratory at the Royal Institution where he was applying similar X-ray methods to determine structures, but with an emphasis on non-metallic and principally organic compounds.
It was to the latter of these two crystallographic meccas that the young Cox went and was assigned the task of finding how the carbon atoms in benzene, known from chemical evidence to be in a ring, were disposed. Were they arranged symmetrically, each equidistant from its two neighbours in the ring? Was that ring flat and if not was it buckled to form an armchair or boat-like structure? After some difficulties trying to keep the benzene crystalline because it is liquid at room temperature, Cox established beyond doubt that the carbon atoms were at the corners of a regular hexagon, a conclusion of considerable importance for theoretical chemists. Many years later in Leeds he encouraged studies to discover something of the motion of those molecules in their lattice. Professor W.N. Haworth, Head of the Birmingham Chemistry Department, then engaged with E.L. Hirst on the study of the carbohydrates, was quick to see the potential of Cox's work and appointed him to his staff in 1929.
In the next decade Cox used X-ray techniques to settle many important structures including, on the organic side, that of Vitamin C which is now recognised to have a vitally important role of anti-oxidant in cellular processes; whilst in inorganic chemistry, and stimulated by his older colleague William Wardlaw, Cox elucidated how molecules at the corners of squares are arranged round a metal ion sitting at the centre. Without this early knowledge of the possible configurations of structures of this kind it is arguable that understanding the important role of metal ions sequestered in large biological molecules might well have been delayed, and possibly the seminal work of Max Perutz in elucidating the structure of very large molecules, which began the whole field of molecular biology, would have been postponed.
Cox had marked loyalty towards his native Somerset and to England and he joined the Territorial Army, being commissioned in 1936. When the Second World War came he was recruited to scientific work, becoming Superintendent of the Special Operations Executive laboratories where he was involved inter alia in making devices for use by our agents and the Maquis in Europe. In this quasi-secret world he met Victor (Lord) Rothschild, then in MI5, and they struck up a warm friendship which later led Rothschild, who was for 10 years Chairman of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) to recruit Cox into membership of that body.
The war over, Cox took up the Chair of Inorganic and Structural Chemistry at Leeds University and in the next 15 years became a much respected member of the "establishment" of that university. As Professor of Physical Chemistry, and therefore his close colleague for 10 of those years, I felt he was at his happiest either in the department or in less formal groups such as Lyddon Hall, of which he was a Regent and where the Warden Ronnie Morgan was his firm friend. He was very popular with his research colleagues, inevitably known as Cox's Pippins, and he was very good at creating the right conditions for their research to flourish, was unselfish over publications and far- sighted both in developing new techniques and important ideas.
Always seeking higher speed of data collection and interpretation, Cox early saw the importance of the electronic computer as a substitute for the slow and laborious manual or punched card calculations. He secured an ICL Pegasus computer for Leeds early in the Fifties. He also recruited mathematicians such as Durward Cruickshank. He fostered new techniques like nuclear magnetic resonance, and was not best pleased when an application to the Department for Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) for funds to develop this method, which became of enormous world-wide importance, was turned down on the grounds that the DSIR Committee "could see no conceivable use" for it. Fascinated to know how the earth's crystalline minerals were formed, he therefore established a high pressure laboratory and links with the geochemists in Leeds.
In 1960 he left Leeds to become Secretary of the ARC. Initially he was happy, perhaps feeling closer to the earth his father had tilled. He became less content when, as a result of the 1965 Science and Technology Act, the research councils, previously funded by the Treasury, were transferred to the Department of Education and Science, and the old Advisory Council on Scientific Policy was replaced by the Council for Scientific Policy (CSP). As a member and latterly chairman of the CSP and its successor body, the Advisory Board for the Research Councils, my working contact with Cox was renewed and I could sense his feeling of concern at what he perceived to be threats to his independence from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. When, during his retirement, Victor Rothschild, as chairman of the Government's Central Policy Review Staff (Think Tank), proposed to apply his customer / contractor relationship, Cox saw this as a major threat to the survival of the ARC and their friendship cooled markedly.
Cox married first Lucie Baker by whom he had a son Keith and a daughter Patricia, both of whose entries in Who's Who are on an adjacent page to his. Six years after Lucie's death he married Professor Mary Truter, a former Leeds "Pippin", and they had many happy years together during which they were regular attenders at the meetings of the British Association.
Characteristically, by voluntary service to the Royal Institution, Gordon Cox tried to repay his debt to that body, which he saw as the springboard for his career. For myself I shall always be grateful to have known so modest and capable a man and one so upright and entirely devoid of envy.
Ernest Gordon Cox, chemist and administrator: born Bath 24 April 1906; Chemistry Department, Birmingham University 1929-41; Professor of Inorganic and Structural Chemistry, Leeds University 1945-60; Secretary, Agricultural Research Council 1960-71; FRS 1954; KBE 1964; married 1929 Lucie Baker (died 1962, one son, one daughter), 1968 Professor Mary Truter (nee Jackman); died London 23 June 1996.
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