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Image of Photograph of Sir Alan Cottrell

Sir Alan Cottrell

Sir Alan Cottrell (1919-2012), the “father of modern materials science”, was Master of Jesus College from 1974 to 1986.

Cottrell's 'dislocation theory' of the nature and strength of metallic materials, the basis of his worldwide fame, derived from his pioneering perception of the crucial role of microscopic defects (point defects, dislocations, and cracks) in the mechanical behaviours of crystalline materials.

The theory gave birth to new concepts which have been actively used by subsequent generations of materials scientists. It earned him 16 honorary degrees and more than 20 medals and awards.

He also spent more than a dozen years in public service and in University administration, becoming Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government in the early 1970s and Vice Chancellor of Cambridge at the end of that decade.

Convinced that the British manufacturing industry was failing to take proper advantage of modern scientific technology, and critical of the lack of reasoned, evidence based decision making by government, he believed strongly that academics should take an active part in the formation of public policy.

Scientific contribution

A Birmingham boy, Cottrell attended his local grammar school, and went from there to the city’s University, graduating at the age of 20.

By 23 he had gained his PhD, based on his wartime research into the problem of metal fractures in armour plating. By the time he was 30 he was Professor of Physical Metallurgy at Birmingham, having meanwhile revolutionised the teaching of the subject with his first book, Theoretical Structural Metallurgy (1948).

At 34 he published his classic Dislocations and Plastic Flow in Crystals (1953) in which he predicted with uncanny accuracy observations subsequently made by transmission electron microscopy.

Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at 35 he was later to receive its highest award, the Copley Medal. He was still writing important books (and cycling into College) in his 70s and 80s: Modern Theory of Metals (1988), Chemical Bonding of Transition Metal Carbides (1995) and The Electron Theory of Metals (1998).

Public service

Cottrell worked at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell from 1955 to 1958 where he was primarily concerned with the stability and safety of nuclear generators. He became a lifelong advocate of the benefits of nuclear power as a safe, sustainable, and carbon-free large scale energy resource.

Then, after a productive seven years as Goldsmiths’ Professor of Metallurgy in Cambridge, he spent eight years as an adviser in Whitehall: first to the Ministry of Defence and finally as Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government.

Although the work was wide ranging, he found the experience frustrating and dispiriting and was glad to return to University life. His tenure as Master was memorable for the admission of women as Fellows and students of the College, and of students as members of the College’s Council, changes which he favoured and facilitated. 

After his retirement from the mastership, Cottrell was an Emeritus and Honorary Fellow at the College until his death at the age of 92.

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