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19 April 2018

James Anthony Charles, universally known as Jim, was born on 23 August 1926 in Ardrossan, Ayrshire.  He had just one sister who survived infancy, Mary, eleven years his senior.  His parents John H.V. Charles (JHVC) and Winifred L. Charles, had both grown up in Cambridge.  They moved north in 1921 with Harold Raistrick, for whom JHVC had been working as a skilled mycologist and bacteriologist, albeit formally an "assistant", in Cambridge University, when he was appointed head of the Biochemical Laboratories at ICI, Ardeer.  In 1929 Raistrick became Professor of Biochemistry at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and JHVC was seconded by ICI to work with him there so the family moved to London via a brief spell in Cambridge.  Tragically his father was killed in a road accident in London in 1932.

During 1933 Jim spent a long spell in hospital recovering from TB.  After that most of his schooling was in Bromley, Kent where the family lived following his father's death.  He was evacuated to Cambridge from 1940 to 1942, attending the Cambridgeshire County High School and then returning to Bromley County Grammar School in 1942.  In 1943, after just one year in the sixth form, he entered the Royal College of Science (RCS), part of Imperial College (IC), with the aim of embarking on the Chemistry degree course after one year of the University of London Intermediate BSc.  However, although he did quite well overall in the examinations at the end of that year, it was decided that Chemistry was not his forte; instead he was welcomed into the Metallurgy course in the Royal School of Mines (RSM), another part of IC.  In part this resulted from encouragement by school friend David West, then studying Metallurgy in Cardiff (much later to become a Professor at IC).  He greatly enjoyed his time at IC and always spoke highly of the course and those who taught him.   In that period commuting by rail was far from straightforward but a major compensation was that he thereby met Valerie King, whom he married in 1951.

In 1947 Jim graduated  BSc Eng with First Class honours and Associateship of the RSM.  He had expected then to be called up into the Army (he had spent a lot of time in the University of London Senior Training Corps, gaining his Certificate B, and had passed an Officer Selection Board for a commission) but the government had determined that those with first class degrees in metallurgy would instead go into industry.  Jim was directed to J. Stone & Co., Ltd in Deptford, makers of a wide range of metallic products from large marine propellers (in manganese bronze) and bearings to aircraft rivets (in aluminium alloy).  Jim worked mainly on tin-base bearing metals.  His National Service obligation completed, he moved in 1950 to a much better paid job with the British Oxygen Research and Development Company (BORAD), part of BOC, to work initially on oxygen cutting and later on the use of oxygen in process metallurgy, especially steel making.  The success of this work led to his first book; he was principal author of Oxygen in Iron and Steel Making published in1956.  The management of BORAD were less than delighted by his move to the University of Cambridge in 1960 to succeed Jack Nutting as a University Lecturer in the Department of Metallurgy and threatened to take action against the University for enticement!  Happily that did not happen but it was some years before friendly relations were re-established.

In Cambridge he quickly developed a lasting admiration for the then Head of Department, Professor Alan (later Sir Alan) Cottrell.  Over the years Jim supervised an impressively wide range of research projects in the Department as well as teaching there and in St John's College.  With some important exceptions mentioned later, those projects involved relevance and often direct links to current industrial practice.  To do justice to them all is impossible in this obituary so two examples must suffice.  Alan Begg worked on hot briquetting of zinc oxide, a project that arose out of Jim's long association with Imperial Smelting and Laura Cohen investigated some effects of hydrogen on duplex stainless steels, a topic of interest to Shell and others.  Both have told me how much they appreciated the wide range of work going on in Jim's group.   Alan recalls "Above all what Jim did for me during my PhD was to provide inspiration" and Laura adds, "Jim was a very inspiring supervisor.  He encouraged thinking outside the box and enthusiastic, practical, sound yet slightly unorthodox approaches to industrially-relevant problems."

Given his industrial experience and the focus of much of his research Jim was often sought out as a consultant.  It was on one such visit - to Imperial Smelting - that he first met Derek Fray, who joined the Department shortly afterwards.  Jim clearly enjoyed the opportunities that consulting brought for maintaining active involvement with industry and, often, contact with former students.  Unsurprisingly, from time to time he persuaded Departmental colleagues to help with a problem identified as a result of a consultancy.  Jim's external activities were by no means restricted to industrial consulting.  From time to time he served Government Departments and associated bodies, especially the DTI and SERC (as they then were).   His responsibilities ranged from researching and writing a report on the relationship between the metallurgical industry and universities to much work on committees, for example one overseeing a substantial project on computer simulation of the design and production of castings.

Throughout his career Jim was actively involved with professional societies and was a strong advocate of amalgamation of the various professional institutes and learned societies  covering metallurgical interests.  By the time of the final step in the creation of the Institute of Metals, as a Vice-President of both the societies involved, he played an important role on the committee tasked with bringing that Institute into being.  He then served on the new Institute's Executive Committee and was a Vice-President.  He was much involved with the then Institute of Metals' publications, serving on the Editorial Board of Metals Technology for seven years and continuing onto that of its successor Materials Science & Technology for seventeen years.  Also, with Gerry Smith (on both occasions) and Geoff Greenwood (on the latter), he helped edit books of collected papers presented to mark the 70th birthdays of Sir Alan Cottrell and Sir Robert Honeycombe, published in 1990 and 1992 respectively.

Demonstrating a strength of the Collegiate system, in 1965 a conversation at dinner with, a scientifically knowledgeable archaeologist and Research Fellow Colin Renfrew (now an Honorary Fellow) led Jim to develop an interest in archaeometallurgy.  Colin's inquisitive interests in some Early Cycladic metal analyses and the development of copper metallurgy in the Balkans initiated Jim's involvement in this area, an involvement that continued for the rest of his professional career, albeit always second fiddle to that relating to modern industrial practice.  A project of which he was particularly proud revealed that the technique to create what is now known as "Sheffield plate" was in use at least as long ago as Minoan times around 1500BC.  In Colin's estimation "Jim certainly made a number of useful and original contributions to archaeometallurgy. ... He really raised the standard of metallurgical discussion of prehistoric metal objects found in Europe, mainly the Aegean."  His penultimate PhD student in this area Karen Wiemer, who investigated early British iron-edged tools, adds "I remember Dr Charles as being helpful, friendly and always ready to share his knowledge."  She is also especially grateful that he allowed her the use of his College room away from other distractions to get her dissertation written, to say nothing of his tolerance of her University rowing.

Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation, and Jo Dillon, Senior Objects Conservator, at the Fitzwilliam Museum have kindly researched Jim's contributions there and report as follows.  "Our first records of Jim’s association with the Fitzwilliam Museum date from the late 1970s when he investigated a silver medal of Oliver Cromwell from the collections. Subsequently, he became a firm friend of the departments of Coins and Medals, Antiquities and Applied Arts, lending expertise and analytical support to projects ranging from the unmasking of coin forgeries to the annealing and unrolling of Greek inscribed silver scrolls bearing magical texts.  In 1984 he served on the Appointments Committee when the Museum interviewed for its first permanent objects’ conservation post: an occasion remembered primarily by the successful candidate (Julie Dawson) for the lively discussion between Jim and another member of the Committee on the corrosion of organ pipes.  From 1985 to 1995 he was a member of the Fitzwilliam Museum Syndicate and after this continued to support the work of the Museum as Honorary Keeper of Metalwork. He could never resist the challenge of an interesting historical or archaeological object and, as recently as 2007-8, contributed to investigation of the metal elements of the 13th century Westminster Retable when it was conserved by the Fitzwilliam’s Hamilton Kerr Institute.  Jim was unfailingly kind and immensely generous with his time and knowledge: our fondest and most familiar memories are of him sitting in our conservation labs poring over some object whilst telling a constant stream of stories and roaring with laughter."

Former pupils happily recall various aspects of Jim's teaching but perhaps the most significant was the course he initiated and gave for many years on the selection of materials, at one time given to Engineers and Chemical Engineers as well as the Departmental Part II Class.  In those lectures manufactured articles were dismantled, the reasons for the choice of materials discussed and components passed around the audience.  Out of this course grew the book "Selection and Use of Engineering Materials", the first edition created with Andy Crane of IC, who had been working on a similar theme there.  Sadly Andy died shortly after publication so Jim alone produced the second edition.  For the third, the most recent, edition Jim was joined by Justin Furness, a former undergraduate and PhD student in the Department.

Recognition of Jim's research came in many ways.  He achieved the Cambridge University degree of ScD in 1973 and promotion to Reader - in Process Metallurgy - in 1978 (there were relatively few Professors in Cambridge in his time).  He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (FREng) in 1983 and a Fellow of the  Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA) in 1985.  In 2002 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Materials (formed after a further amalgamation of societies and later forming a part of the current Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, IOM3).   He was awarded the Beilby Medal and Prize of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1965, and the Hadfield Medal and Prize in 1977, the Kroll Medal and Prize in 1989, and, with Y.W. Cho, the Elegant Work Prize in 1992 all by the Institute of Materials or its predecessors.  For a time he held a Special Professorship at Nottingham University and a Visiting Professorship at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL.

Looking back over Jim's research and teaching what picture emerges?  We all have our likes and dislikes within our field and Jim was no exception.  His greatest love was metallurgical processing, supported especially by optical metallography in which he had had a thorough grounding at the RSM, augmented by excursions into physical metallurgy and non-metallic materials but he never denied that he was rather less at home with crystallographic aspects of the subject as illustrated by the recollections of Chris Hammond and Ivor Grayson-Smith, his first Johnian supervision group: "Supervisions were always good-humoured and spiked with tales of oxygen steelmaking and other high temperature adventures. We were on less solid ground when questions turned to crystallography and dislocations, when help would be summoned from the appropriate textbooks."

Shortly after he joined the Department of Metallurgy in 1960 Jim was admitted to membership of St John's College.  In 1963 he was elected to a Fellowship and appointed Junior Bursar, a post he held until 1967, which gave him an extensive knowledge of members of the College staff.  He was briefly Acting Dean then Steward (at a time of considerable student unrest in Cambridge and around the world).  In 1972 he became overall Director of Studies in Natural Sciences, holding that post until 1987 and continuing to look after his own subject until 1990.  By their final year Johnian Natural Scientists were to be found in subjects across the Tripos but Jim's obvious enthusiasm for his own subject proved irresistible to quite a number.  Peter Clarke (former Fellow), who was one of the Tutors for Natural Scientists for much of that time, recalls Jim with affection: "As an historian, I evidently struck him as an odd choice to become Tutor to Natural Scientists, handling admissions.  After some initial wariness on both sides, we were both surprised (I think) at the strong and effective working relationship that developed between us, leading to a lasting friendship.  The key was an honest, no-nonsense candour between us, both recognising that each brought something valuable to the table, especially when it came to interviewing prospective students from a wide range of backgrounds.  And always time for a good-natured joke!"  Over the years Jim served on the College Council and on various committees, notably 16 years on the Investments Committee, several as chairman.  At one time or another he was a governor of a number of schools, serving as the College's nominated Governor of King Edward's School, King's Lynn for 17 years.  His final contribution to the life of the College was to deliver an informative and entertaining speech, compressing an account of his life into a well-judged length at the lunch given to celebrate his 90th birthday.

Following his official retirement in 1990 Jim soon turned his hand to writing and three books emerged.  First of all came Out of the Fiery Furnace (2000), primarily an account of his professional life but with some wider autobiographical details, especially relating to his education and wartime experiences.  This was followed by Light Blue Materials (2005), written in collaboration with Lindsay Greer, which provides a detailed, illustrated history of the Cambridge Department including informative lists of Part II and Part III Tripos results and PhDs obtained up to 2004.  Finally One Man's Cambridge (2006) focuses on his father's life and achievements augmented by some family history as well as a lot of historical information about the University and the town of Cambridge.  Amongst other things it reveals that Jim's great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather had held the post of St John's College Groom and their wives had been College bedmakers.  A further family link to the College was created when Jim Staunton was elected a Fellow in organic chemistry; in his PhD in Liverpool he had worked, inter alia, on carolic acid and carlosic acid, both named in memory of Jim Charles' father and both providing excellent teaching material in structural organic chemistry, much to Jim's delight.

Singing played an important part in Jim's life.  At Imperial College he sang in the University of London Choir and at BORAD he was a member of a small choral group that normally met at lunchtimes; on one occasion it was asked to perform at the annual dinner of the BORAD senior management.

Jim was a devoted family man.  He and Valerie proved to be a very hospitable couple, entertaining or even providing shelter for many over the years, especially his PhD students.  They had two children, Richard and Stephen.  Jim was devastated when Valerie died in 2001 and again when Richard died in 2013.  In 2003 he married a long-standing family friend, Dr Marcia Edwards.  Stephen and Marcia survive him.  Although they never lived in Grantchester, Jim and Valerie keenly supported the Church of St Andrew and St Mary and are now buried there.  

I am very grateful to the many people who have provided helpful and informative recollections of Jim.  The appreciative comments quoted above give an excellent picture of Jim: enthusiastic, knowledgeable with wide-ranging interests, helpful, almost a guardian angel to many students.  Ever the gentleman to the end, Jim much preferred a face-to-face meeting or a telephone conversation, firmly resisting the temptations of e-mail.  Throughout his career he was resolutely a "Metallurgist", interested primarily in industrial processes, especially extraction and steel making, but his intuitive understanding of his subject led to important work in archaeometallurgy on the one hand and museum collections on the other.  Whilst the progressive dilution of his beloved "Metallurgy" by that upstart "Materials Science" may have been an irritation, his long involvement with St John's College brought him particular pleasure, not least because members of his family in previous generations had been College servants.

John Leake



In compiling this obituary I have been greatly helped by Jim's own writings and by recollections from many people, mainly former students and colleagues of Jim, especially:

  • Dr Alan R. Begg (SJC 1973), formerly Senior Vice President of Group Technology Development at AB SKF.
  • Baroness Brown, Dr Julia E. King (New Hall 1972), formerly Vice-Chancellor, Aston University.
  • Dr Laura Cohen (Newnham 1982), Chief Executive, British Ceramic Confederation.
  • Mrs Fiona Colbert, Biographical Librarian, SJC.
  • Ms Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation, Fitzwilliam Museum.
  • Ms Jo Dillon, Senior Objects Conservator, Fitzwilliam Museum.
  • Dr Ivor Grayson-Smith (SJC 1961), retired Company Director and Secretary.
  • Dr Chris Hammond (SJC 1961), Life Fellow in Materials Science, University of Leeds.
  • Dr R.J. Hobson (Emmanuel 1990), Research Manager, Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy.
  • Emeritus Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, Honorary Fellow (SJC 1958).
  • Dr Nuna Staniaszek (Clare 1979), Director of Communications, IOM3.
  • Dr Jim Staunton (SJC Fellow 1969).
  • Dr Karen Wiemer (SJC 1988), ex Schlumberger.

(SJC = St John's College)