Lives of the fellows

Brian Hilton, Lord Flowers of Queen's Gate Flowers

b.13 September 1924 d.25 June 2010
KB(1969) Hon FRCP(1992) FRS(1961)

Lord Brian Hilton Flowers was a physicist who played a leading role in the development of atomic energy in Britain and became vice-chancellor of London University. Born in Blackburn, Lancashire, he was the son of Harold Joseph Flowers, a Baptist minister, and his wife Marion Violet née Hilton. Educated at Bishop Gore Grammar School in Swansea, he was encouraged in his passion for physics by a gifted teacher, Mr Foukes. He studied physics with electronics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and, it being wartime, obtained his degree in two years.

In 1944, due to his obvious talent, he was immediately recruited by John Cockroft, the British nuclear physics pioneer, to work in Canada at the Montreal Laboratory for Atomic Energy, which later moved to Chalk River, Ontario. At the time he was working on a nuclear reactor and was completely unaware that an atom bomb was being developed. Two years later he returned to the UK, rejecting his earlier plan to study mathematics at Cambridge and, instead, joined the newly established Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) at Harwell in Oxfordshire where he eventually worked in the group headed by Klaus Fuchs. In 1950, Fuchs, a brilliant scientist, was arrested and imprisoned as a Soviet agent. That same year, Flowers left Harwell to study nuclear physics and spectroscopy at the University of Birmingham.

Two years later, at the age of 28, he returned to Harwell to take the post left vacant by Fuchs of head of theoretical physics. There he succeeded in raising the morale of the team and began to establish an international reputation for himself. In 1958 he was appointed professor of theoretical physics at the University of Manchester. Three years later he became Langworthy professor with overall responsibility for the department, an appointment that was to mark a shift in his career away from research and into administration, from ‘composing to conducting’ as he put it. In 1961 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

The final end to his research career came in 1967 when he was appointed chairman of the Science Research Council (SRC). During his six years in the chair he worked hard to preserve the council’s structure which was under threat from a report by Lord Rothschild arguing that applied scientific research should be controlled by the body commissioning the work rather than the SRC. Ironically it was while he headed the SRC that he had to announce the British government’s decision to leave the European project to build the world’s biggest atomic reactor.

He was knighted in 1969 and in 1972 became chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. In the Flowers Report of 1976, published in the year he left the commission, he pointed out the dangers of committing to a large scale nuclear power programme without solving the problem of radioactive waste and commented that, if plutonium waste was produced, the question was ‘not whether someone would acquire it for terrorist purposes but when’. Also, long before it had become an issue, he warned that the burning of fossil fuels could cause severe changes to the climate. One of his obituarists commented that ‘he believed that, although one major purpose of science is the betterment of mankind, another is the better management of the earth’s resources’.

In 1973 he became rector of Imperial College and stayed there for 12 years. While there he built strong interdisciplinary links, as one commentator has remarked, ‘laying the foundations of the modern college’. He was famous for his ‘open door policy’ – his personal assistant from that time commented that anyone could see him and ‘all were treated with the same courtesy and good humour, combined with common sense. That approach was very novel and much appreciated’. Popular with the students, he sided with them in demonstrations against rising tuition fees and used to entertain them twice a term to ‘beer and bangers’ parties in his flat.

He was chairman of the committee of vice-chancellors from 1983 to 1985; vice-chancellor of the University of London from 1985 to 1990; and chancellor of Manchester University from 1987 to 1998. From 1987 to1998 he was chairman of the Nuffield Foundation. Among numerous international accolades he was very proud of being made Officier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1981.

While he was vice-chancellor at London, he gained a reputation for making extensive notes during committee meetings; when his textbook on computer programmes (An introduction to numerical methods in C++, Oxford, University Press, 1995) came out the explanation for his zealousness became apparent. In the introduction he wrote, ‘It was an enjoyable hobby, and immensely relaxing during interminable committee meetings, to write snippets of programs which could later be tried out at home and was less visible to one’s colleagues than other portable pastimes, such as wood carving or taking snuff’.

Created a life peer in 1979, he was a founder member of the Social Democratic party in 1981. He was a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology from 1982 to 2002 and chair from 1989 to 1993. As such he was involved with several inquiries into subjects such as medical research and the development of nuclear power. The committee played an important role in the setting up of the Office of Science and Technology in 1992.

Favourite pastimes included walking, gardening and computing. He was also a talented musician and, at Harwell, played the cello in a trio. He loved composing and particularly enjoyed setting the poems of Donne, Joyce and Herrick to music in the style of Britten and Tippet.

He met his future wife, Mary Frances née Behrens, while he was working at the AERE and she was married to Oscar Buneman, another member of Klaus Fuchs’ group. They met through the Harwell orchestra and choir, she sang and he conducted. Her father, Sir Leonard Behrens, was vice-president of the Liberal Party, a prominent local figure in Manchester and a lifelong supporter of the Halle orchestra. They married in 1951. He was often heard to comment that his wife shared his job and she warmly supported him in the various social activities incumbent in his role. When he died she survived him, together with his two stepsons, Peter and Michael.

RCP editor

[The Telegraph www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/7861727/Lord-Flowers.html; The Guardian www.theguardian.com/science/2010/jun/29/lord-flowers-brian-flowers-obituary; Independent www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/lord-flowers-physicist-who-did-major-work-on-atomic-nuclei-and-became-a-respected-administrator-2023181.html; Imperial reporter wwwf.imperial.ac.uk/blog/reporter/2010/06/28/imperial-remembers-former-rector-lord-flowers/#more-5503 – all accessed 8 June 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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