Mitchell, E.W.J. (physicist)

Reference: MS 5343Date: 1944-2002Extent: 29 boxes (approx. 600 items)

Edgar William John Mitchell was born on 25 September 1925 in Kingsbridge, south Devon. He was educated at the local grammar school and Sheffield University where he studied for a degree in physics (awarded 1946). He was employed in the Metropolitan-Vickers Research Laboratory between 1946-1951 during which time he successfully studied for a PhD at the University of Bristol. He was then appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Physics at Reading University where he developed a research programme studying defects in crystalline solids, such as semiconductors, quartz and diamond. In 1957 Mitchell’s first neutron scattering experiment, using the BEPO (British Experimental Pile ‘O’) reactor at Harwell, showed that neutron scattering could be used to determine the properties of defects in solids, and thus opened up a new field.

His managerial and administrative abilities were demonstrated both at Reading and nationally. In 1960 he set up a novel interdisciplinary course at Reading on the physical properties of materials and in 1961 he was appointed Professor of Physical Properties of Materials. He subsequently became Head of the Physics Department, 1968-1978, Dean of the Faculty of Science, 1966-1969, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, 1976-1978. He served as Chairman of the Physics Committee of the Science Research Council (SRC), 1967-1970. with responsibility for the funding and organisation of university users of the nuclear reactors at Harwell and Aldermaston. Mitchell served as the chairman of the Neutron Beam Research Committee (NBRC) for the first eight years. Mitchell became heavily involved in the successful negotiations for Britain to join the Franco-German project at Grenoble (Institut Laue-Langevin) to build a high flux beam reactor, and served as acting joint director in 1973 and member of the scientific council, 1973-1980. Mitchell was an initiator and strong supporter of the project to convert the old Nimrod accelerator into SNS (Spallation Neutron Source), subsequently renamed ISIS, and was a member of the planning group, 1978-1985.

In 1978 Mitchell was appointed Dr Lee’s Professor of Experimental Philosophy at Oxford University and to a Fellowship at Wadham College. As head of the Clarendon Laboratory he initiated research in various aspects of laser and condensed matter physics and developed his own interests in the properties of molten salts and diamonds. He continued to be active on national and international committees, most importantly as a member of the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC), 1982-1990 and chairman, 1985-1990. The most significant development of his chairmanship was probably the introduction of interdisciplinary research centres in universities to concentrate research funding in key areas such as materials science and electronics, while the most publicly controversial issue was the moving of the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux, Sussex. He was appointed to the Presidency of the CERN Council at a time of important decisions about its future programme, 1991-1993.

Mitchell’s work was recognised by many honours including election to the Royal Society in 1986 and a knighthood in 1990. He died on 30 October 2002.

The collection includes biographical material, University of Reading papers relating to physics teaching and University development in the 1970s, material related to Mitchell’s teaching at Oxford, research material, correspondence, minutes of meetings, records of publications, scientific papers, editorial work, lectures and broadcast material, documentation of Mitchell’s association with British and international, chiefly European, societies and organisations, and documentation of visits and conferences.

For a fuller account of Mitchell’s career see the memoir by R.A. Cowley in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. 50 (2004), 173-181.

More information