Obituary: Sir Henry Wood
Friday 01 April 1994
IF THE REPUTATION of education in Scotland was enhanced in its already splendid tradition in the 1950s and 1960s - which it certainly was - it was partly because key positions were occupied by a number of heavyweight, serious, effective men, their opinions about society forged by the circumstances of the Second World War.
One such pivotal position was the post of principal of the Jordanhill College of Education in Glasgow. Jordanhill was by a significant margin the biggest college of education in Britain in 1945, and vigorously expanding. On this account, it was potentially a dynamo of innovation in British education. That the potential was realised is to the credit above all others in a massively talented staff of Henry Wood. Truly can the Glasgow Herald reflect that it was a time when some of the giants of Scottish education were around and it was Wood they acknowledged as their leader.
In spring 1960 I wrote to Wood asking if I could see a senior member of his staff about a book I was writing to be published by the Civic Press of Glasgow, The Case for Ship-Schools. Instead of being fobbed off or told to see such and such a colleague I was invited to lunch by Wood himself. He turned out to be extremely helpful, as he was to countless others who brought serious educational ideas to him - and continued a sustained interest when the concept of ship-schools became reality with the cruises of the British India Dunera, Devonia, Nevada and Uganda. To my letter of thanks for being so constructive Wood, using what for him was a friendly form of address, wrote 'Dear Dalyell, Educators must never succumb to the deep slumber of decided opinions. John Stuart Mill. Yours sincerely HPW.' This laconic letter encapsulated Wood. Years later - when I dared to call him Harry - he told me that the leitmotiv of his life was scouring every form of practical educational advance. And so it was.
Unlike most of his contemporaries in senior positions north of the border Wood was not a Scot. Born in 1908, to a Northumberland family of farmers and shipbuilders, Wood went to Morpeth Grammar School and then followed naturally to Durham University to study physics. It was perhaps his good fortune that the professor of physics was W. E. Curtis whose particular interest was spectroscopy and related problems. In 1937 Wood, having taken his BSc and MSc in Durham under Curtis, became a lecturer at Manchester University. It was at this very moment that Patrick (later Lord) Blackett succeeded Sir Lawrence Bragg as the Langworthy Professor of Physics in the Victoria University of Manchester, where he built on Rutherford's work and created a leading international research laboratory.
Blackett told me years later that he thought that Wood would have been a leading member of the research department had it not been for the war. As it was, part of the reason for Wood's coming to Manchester was that his interest in spectroscopy dovetailed with Blackett's interest in tracing the disintegration of the nuclei of nitrogen atoms and tracking high-energy cosmic- ray particles. Blackett also remembered Wood as a quite outstanding young teacher of students and postgraduate students in the Manchester laboratory.
In those days the science faculty of Manchester University mixed in the Common Room with those of different disciplines since the university faculties were then all concentrated in one part of the city. Among the most influential academics of the day at Manchester was Sir Lewis Namier, Professor of Modern History, and Wood sometimes referred to the benefits he had gained in knowledge of rigorous academic discipline from the famous historian.
In 1940 Wood was commissioned into the RAF and volunteered for active service. Against his will, the authorities decided that he was more valuable lecturing on the theory and practice of flight to pilots and potential pilots - many of whom, to his sadness, were never to return from their missions.
It was this skill that tempted Wood to become principal lecturer in physics at Jordanhill in 1944. Soon he was catapulted by his obvious talent into becoming a vice- principal and by 1949 was the natural and unquestioned choice as Principal. For 22 years until he retired in 1971 he planned and improved education courses besides taking a deep interest in a huge building programme which transformed the Jordanhill campus and presented it with what were undoubtedly the finest facilities for teacher training anywhere in Britain. In particular Wood foresaw the vital importance of fully trained physical education teachers and was the driving force behind the physical education department of Jordanhill which was to become world famous in the field.
Wood, unlike some principals, was concerned about the national need and not only furthering his own institution. He worked hard to develop the Bachelor of Education degree courses at Craigie College, in Ayr, and other new Scottish education colleges. When he retired he became a sought-after lecturer in education at Glasgow University and assessor in education at Strathclyde University, which has now merged with Jordanhill.
Jordanhill was so large that it could easily have become one of those huge impersonal institutions which do little to inspire the affection of the young people who pass through it. Perhaps it was Wood's supreme achievement that he was able to develop a community spirit at Jordanhill in which students not only from Scotland but from around the world could feel that they had a place. He built up world-wide contacts which were to the benefit of his students. His wife, Isobel, provided him with considerable support and he took great pleasure in a close family one of whom is RFM Wood, the distinguished professor of surgery at St Bartholomew's Hospital, in London.
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