William Edward Curtis, F.R.S.

Professor of Physics 1926-1956

Curtis was educated in Physics both at Imperial College (awarded ARCS and Diploma) and then in Astronomy at London University, where he completed a B.Sc. Honours Degree in Astronomy. Subsequently he was appointed as a demonstrator and researcher under Alfred Fowler, FRS.

Curtis’s first paper (1912) was a description and interpretation of the spectrum of a new star in Gemini. At about this time Fowler drew his attention to a prominent stellar line which seemed to be associated with helium. This led Curtis to study the light emitted by a helium discharge tube and to a unique band spectrum, the measurement and interpretation of which was his main scientific concern throughout his career. Curtis made one or two foray’s into other areas of science, notably the investigation of ‘Use of high frequency electric fields to raise body temperatures’.

During WW I, Curtis served as a sapper in the R.N. Division and served in Gallipoli throughout the whole campaign. In 1918 he married Adeline Mary Grace Mitchell, and they had two children. Following demobilization, Curtis returned to IC and took up his research. Curtis quickly moved on to a Lectureship at Sheffield University, and then in 1922 to a Readership at King’s College, London where the spectroscopic equipment was in a badly ventilated basement next door to a cellar containing tanks for cadavers!

In 1926 Curtis accepted the Headship of the Physics Department at Newcastle. He was initially housed in a small research laboratory in an attic-like space above the main lecture theatre at the top of the Armstrong building. Within a few years Curtis had completely transformed the department. Despite severe financial constraints, he gradually acquired first-rate spectroscopic equipment and built up supporting facilities.

Curtis was elected FRS in 1934, but shortly afterwards the outbreak of WW II interrupted his work. He spent the war working for the civil defence camouflage establishment, as a scientific adviser to the Research and Experiments Branch of the Ministry of Home Security and then as Superintendent of Applied Explosives, at Fort Halstead. After the war Curtis retained a connection with the Ministry of Supply as a member of the Scientific Advisory Council.

After the war Curtis was involved in public affairs, and with the running of the College. He was instrumental in the establishment of a Chair of Theoretical Physics, first held by G.S. Rushbrooke, and he encouraged the creation of new fields of study in the department. In 1950 Curtis was elected President of the Institute of Physics. In 1952 Curtis had a coronary thrombosis, from which he recovered, but which necessitated a quiet period before his retirement in 1955. After his retirement he actively fostered relationships between science and industry in the North East, working closely with the North Eastern Industrial and Development Association. He wrote the report ‘Technical and scientific information on manufacturing industries of the North East’ (report of 1957 inquiry).

After his retirement Curtis instituted an annual lecture series to young people. Initially sponsored by industry and supported by LEAs, these lectures drew audiences from schools all over North East England and the total attendance over ten years was more than 30,000. Curtis also delivered a series of lectures to sixth formers at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1958 (18, 19, 25 and 26 March); the lectures were simply entitled 'Magnetism' [2].

At the time of his death in 1969, Curtis was preparing the eleventh series of lectures for young people. The University recognized his great contributions to teaching and lecturing by naming its largest lecture theatre (which is in the Herschel building) the Curtis Auditorium.

[1] G.D. Rochester, William Edward Curtis 1889-1969, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 16, 1970, 63-76.

[2] Dr Frank James, Director of Collections, Royal Institution of Great Britain