Lives of the fellows

(Sir) Gordon Robert Higginson

b.8 November 1929 d.5 November 2011
Kt(1992) BSc Leeds(1950) PhD(1952) Hon DSc Durh(1991) Hon FRCP(1992) Hon LLD Leeds(1994) Hon DSc Loughborough(2002) FIMechE FICE FEng

Sir Gordon Higginson was vice chancellor of the University of Southampton and a leading mechanical engineer. He was born in Leeds, the son of Frederick John Higginson, a company director, and Letitia Higginson, a housewife. He attended Leeds Grammar School and then studied mechanical engineering at the University of Leeds, gaining a BSc in 1950 and a PhD in 1952.

After gaining his doctorate, he worked for the Ministry of Supply (from 1953 to 1956) and then returned to Leeds as a lecturer. In 1962 he became an associate professor and head of the materials branch at the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham. Three years later, he joined the University of Durham as a professor of engineering. While at Durham he served as dean of science and head of the department of engineering.

In 1985 he was appointed vice chancellor of the University of Southampton, where he oversaw the development of a series of research centres, including the optoelectronics research centre, the environmental epidemiology unit and the oceanography centre. He retired in 1994.

His main research interest was hydrodynamic lubrication and tribology, or the science of interacting surfaces in relative motion. He contributed to Elastohydrodynamic lubrication (London, Pergamon Press, 1966), the key text on the subject. He later developed an interest in bioengineering.

In 1987 he was invited by the then Thatcher government to review the A level system. In a report published a year later, the Higginson committee recommended a broader curriculum, with students studying five subjects instead of the usual three. The report was supported by teachers and civil servants, but was vetoed by Conservative right wingers who were concerned about tampering with what they considered to be the gold standard of A levels. Many of the ideas outlined in the report have since been put into practise.

Higginson also chaired a committee of the Further Education Funding Council which published a report in 1996 recommending how the council could support colleges’ use of IT.

In the 1990s Higginson served as chair of the engineering board of the Science and Engineering Research Council, the major academic grant-awarding body in the UK. He was on the boards of Rolls-Royce and Pirelli, and served for five years as a founder chairman of the Railway Heritage Committee, a statutory body tasked with collecting and conserving historic railway artefacts and archives.

Higginson was knighted in 1992, the same year he received an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians. The University of Durham has named an annual lecture and building in his honour.

In 1954 Higginson married Marjorie Forbes. She died in 1996. He was survived by their three sons and two daughters.

RCP editor

[Times Higher Education 24 November 2011 – accessed 14 February 2017; The Telegraph 21 December 2011 – accessed 14 February 2017; Durham University Précis Professor Sir Gordon Robert Higginson 8th November 1929 – 5th November 2011 – accessed 14 February 2017; Leeds University Obituaries Emeritus Professor Sir Gordon Higginson, DL, PhD, DSc, LLD, DEng, FREng – accessed 14 February 2017]

(Volume XII, page web)

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