Ditchburn, Robert William (physicist)

Reference: MS 4621Date: 1919-c. 1988Extent: 4 boxes

Robert William Ditchburn was born in Waterloo, Lancashire, in 1903. He attended Bootle Grammar School (where his father, who graduated in Physics from the University of London, was Headmaster) from 1911. At the age of 16 Ditchburn won a Bibby Scholarship to Liverpool University where he was exempted from the first year course because he held a Higher School Certificate in relevant subjects. Ditchburn passed the Ordinary Degree in Mathematics and Physics in 1920 and gained his BSc Honours in Physics in 1922. He also was successful in the Cambridge University Scholarship Examination and was admitted to Trinity College the same year. He graduated in 1924.

In 1923 Ditchburn had won a four year Senior Scholarship and this, together with the Isaac Newton Scholarship held 1925-28 and various academic prizes, enabled him to study for his PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory.

Ditchburn applied for a fellowship at Trinity College Dublin in 1928. He was elected and a year later was appointed Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at Dublin University. In 1929 Ditchburn married Doreen Barrett and they remained in Dublin until 1946, except for three years from 1942 during which Ditchburn served as Principal Experimental Officer at the Admiralty Research Laboratory, Teddington.

Ditchburn returned to England in 1946 to take up the Chair of Physics at Reading University. As Head of the Department he oversaw a considerable growth in the study of physics at the University; from 1946 to his retirement in 1968 the staff of the Department increased from three to over thirty. This expansion, which Ditchburn himself thought his single most important contribution to science, culminated in the opening in 1960 of the J J Thomson Physical Laboratory, built on the new Whiteknights site.

In 1956 Ditchburn was instrumental in forming an international Diamond Research Committee, acting as chairman from its inception until 1982. He served as a consultant on diamonds to De Beers and helped to establish a sound administrative base for the company’s research into synthesising diamonds, a project which was eventually successful.
Ditchburn retired in 1968 though he remained active in the fields of diamond research and optics. He also found time to research the illness of Sir Isaac Newton, disputing the suggestion that he died of mercury poisoning. At about this time Ditchburn became strongly committed to the Pugwash movement and attended the 1967 conference in Sweden. He produced a number of papers for Pugwash meetings on the subject of armaments and the energy crisis.

His principal research areas were the photo-ionization of gases and vapours, other absorption processes relevant to the upper atmosphere, the optical properties of solids, (especially diamonds) and the effect of eye movements on visual perception. His most important publication, Light, was first published in 1952 and, with revised editions 1963 and 1976, became a standard textbook dealing with all aspects of the subject. In his later years Ditchburn concentrated on this topic of eye movements, publishing his second major work, Eye Movements and Visual Perception, in 1973, five years after retirement.

Ditchburn’s scientific achievements were recognised with numerous honours and awards. He was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Irish Academy 1930. He was made a Fellow of both the Physical Society (1943) and the Institute of Physics (1949). In 1952-1955 he was on the council of the Physical Society and was vice-president 1958-1960. Ditchburn then served a further two years as vice-president of the newly-merged Physical Society and Institute of Physics.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society 1962 and served on several of its committees. He was also on the British National Committees for Physics, Astronomy and Radio-Science and the National Subcommittee for Optics 1948-1966 (chairman from 1961).

In addition to these and other positions and honours Ditchburn was a Fellow of the Optical Society of America and in 1983 was awarded the prestigious C E X Mees Medal for his contribution to optics research.

The collection contains biographical material, material relating to Ditchburn’s principal publications and diamond research at Reading and some scientific correspondence.

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