He was born in Pietermaritzburg, in Natal province, in 1921 and educated at Merchiston, Maritzburg College and the Natal University College (which later became Natal University). The Second World War intervened, and after completing a BSc degree he joined the armed forces and served with the Special Signals Services. The officer commanding, Brigadier (later Sir Basil) Schonland, a renowned pioneer in lightning research, and Col D.B. Hodges (later Professor of Physics at Natal University) were greatly to influence his career.
After the war Clarence completed a MSc degree with distinction, and in 1947 was awarded the Elsie Ballott Scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he enrolled for the Natural Science Tripos. Upon graduating he returned to Natal University in Durban as a lecturer in the Department of Physics. Hodges was in charge and encouraged Clarence's research on lightning.
Together with Dr D.J. Malan, Clarence pursued research into the electric field changes accompanying lightning discharges, and as a result devised a specialised tape-recording technique to record these field charges. This work led to the award of a PhD in 1956. In the following year the publication of a paper describing this research significantly advanced the understanding of the lightning process.
With his appointment in 1959 as Professor of Physics at Natal University, Clarence and his team broadened their research into areas of atmospheric and space electricity. This led to the establishment of field stations in 1960 on Marion Island, a remote outpost in the Indian Ocean (over 1,000 miles out from Cape Town) and in Sanae, Antarctica, in 1969. Clarence's team made contributions to two significant international investigations into atmospheric and space electricity, designated as International Geophysical Year (IGY) and the International Quiet Sun Year (IQSY).
In 1968 he was made head of the Department of Physics at Natal University, a post he held until his appointment as Vice-Principal in 1975. In his inaugural lecture as Principal in 1977 he demanded that racial segregation at South African universities be lifted and that education be placed under a single ministry.
Following his retirement from the university, Clarence became chairman of the Natal KwaZulu Indaba (regional grand council), where his enlightened views and understanding contributed greatly to a political accord between the peoples of the region during the mid-1980s. Although this achievement was rejected by the embattled regime at the time, it arguably showed a way forward to a negotiated settlement.
Desmond Clarence, physicist: born Pietermaritzburg, South Africa 30 July 1921; married Constance Muirhead (one son, two daughters); died Pietermaritzburg 8 April 1995.