Professors of Natural Philosophy at the Universities of Aberdeen *

Geoffrey Vickers Marr FRSE  30 Jan 1930 - 16th May 2017

Geoffrey Marr was born and died in Darlington, NE England but spent much of his academic life in Reading and in Aberdeen after graduating from the University of Manchester in 1951. His interest in ultra-violet absorption and photoelectrons sprang from his PhD work at Reading with Ditchburn and others on the absorption of UV by alkali metal vapours. The experiments were quite difficult and the work resulted in a series of papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The general area of photo-ionisation in the UV would be one Geoffrey Marr pursued for the rest of his career. After post-doctoral experience in Canada from 1954 - 1957 at the University of Western Ontario he secured a post as Lecturer at McGill University. In 1959 he began a two-year spell with English Electric before returning to Reading and taking up again the subject of UV atomic absorption spectroscopy he had worked on previously, now focusing particularly on elements. By 1973 he had become closely involved with the new apparatus and opportunities that would be availalable with the proposed synchrotron radiation sources. These would revolutionise working in the vacuum ultraviolet on photo-ionisation. It was this interest that he took to Aberdeen when he joined the department on July 1st 1981 and pursued vigorously with a research group containing Pam Woodruff, post-doctoral staff, research students, internal and external collaborators.

On the teaching side, Professor Marr quickly established a more inclusive mode of running the Department, with regular staff meetings to which all levels of academic staff contributed. However the particularly significant feature of the decade he was Head of Department was an almost constant fire fight. The University had been singled out for swingeing cuts of 23% in government recurrent grants in 1981 that rendered the status quo unsustainable. Natural Philosophy occupied a large building with a strong laboratory component in its teaching, substantial research facilities but a small number of Honours students. The Principal and senior management targeted their economic response on Natural Philosophy more than most other disciplines, pour encourager les autres, perhaps, or in some cases to save them. The initial reaction of staff was to weather the storm with the minimum changes. Senior staff in particular were expected to take early retirement to save the most money, regardless of the loss of expertise. Engineering were moved into the building, practical physics classes reduced in length so their laboratory space could be taken over. The Department managed to keep most of its activities going. Marr himself was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1986 and in that year he prepared volume 2 of The Handbook of Synchrotron Radiation. Further external and internal reports followed, particularly in 1988, that put the existence of the department in jeopardy. Workshops were removed or amalgamated, staff offered the choice of moving to another department or facing insecurity. Responses under Professor Marr were to widen Honours degree options, including initiating an Industrial Physics degree but there was not adequate time for most staff who had expertise in pure physics to make long-standing industrial links.

Geoffrey Marr made a decision without consultation in 1986 that was particularly unpopular with most staff, asking the University Court to change the name of the Department from the distinctive 'Natural Philosophy' to the everyday name of 'Physics'. The Court did so. Although staff did their best to make the front of house appear normal to students, after almost a decade of fire-fighting, most of those left decided that the clean air of retirement was preferrable to the toxic atmosphere that had been created within. On the positive side, Aberdeen's re-christened 'Physics' department did just survive, thanks particularly to an olive branch by a new University Principal, while other Universities infected with a similar meme simply closed their Physics departments. Geoffrey Marr himself took early retirement on 30th September 1989, though re-engaged part-time for 5 years the following year to allow him to complete a research project. He was the last Professor of Natural Philosophy, not because the name had changed but because succeeding professors have been given personal chairs or equivalent.

The sequel to this ending is that, following modularisation of degree programs (begun in 1989) and sweeping changes in Physics degree content and options over the 1990s (again, part of a national trend), two decades and more later Physics degrees have never been more popular in Aberdeen. At the time of writing there are 6 Physics Professors. With hindsight, which is a wondergul gift, the cuts of the 1980s achieved much more damage than any benefit created, particularly to the career of the last Professor of Natural Philosophy.


Geoffrey Marr

Geoffrey V Marr from a photograph in the Scientific Instrument Collection of the University of Aberdeen

Nar Phil 1986 - 1987The Natural Philosophy Department (re-christened 'Physics') including Hons and research students, technical staff, secretarial staff and academic staff in 1986-7. Five members were absent.


Page by

John S. Reid

Dec. 2017