National Physical Laboratory

Sir Gordon Brims Black McIvor Sutherland

Gordon Sutherland

Sutherland was born in Caithness, Scotland, and was educated at Morgan Academy, Dundee. He graduated with an MA in Mathematics and a BSc in Physics in 1929. During the following two years, which he spent in Cambridge, he decided to devote his time to experimental work on infrared spectra.

He spent two years in Michigan before returning to Cambridge in 1933. He stayed there until the Second World War, when he worked for the Ministry of Supply on bomb disposal and with a research group in Cambridge to develop the use of infrared spectroscopy in the analysis of fuel used by enemy aircraft.

In 1949 Sutherland returned as Professor of Physics to the University of Michigan, where he continued his infrared work. He made a major contribution to the transformation of infrared spectroscopy from an obscure research technique into a common method for analysis and for the determination of molecular structure. He continued this work until he was appointed Director of NPL in 1956.

Sutherland drew up a five-year plan for the overall development of NPL. Since the Second World War, NPL had undergone relatively limited expansion in facilities or areas of work, and Sutherland was instrumental in the gain of additional staff and facilities.

He was remembered by staff for the strong personal interest he showed in their research programmes, the interest he expressed in their projects and his forward-thinking attitude. He brought an academic air to NPL by emphasising basic research over less routine work.

In his capacity as a scientific statesman, Sutherland greatly improved the public image of NPL both in Britain and internationally, which led to the increased recruitment of able people, among them British scientists who were persuaded to return from overseas. Staff numbers increased from 1080 to 1460, while the scientific officers increased from 155 to 255. They spoke of the enthusiastic atmosphere that prevailed under Sutherland's directorship.

He was keen to establish a sense of community with scientists everywhere, which he partly did by encouraging scientists to visit NPL for conferences.

For Sutherland, the functions of NPL were, first and foremost, to establish, maintain and improve standards of physical measurement, and second, to encourage, assist, and where necessary, to prioneer the application of physics in industry. The promotion of pure research, without much consideration of industrial application, created an elitist environment within NPL. This elitism prompted scientists in other laboratories to refer to NPL as the 'University of Teddington'.

He left NPL in 1964 to take up the position of Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Last Updated: 1 Jul 2015
Created: 19 Apr 2010

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