Obituary – Chris Wilkinson

Published: 15 March 2012

Chris Wilkinson was the father of nanotechnology at the University of Glasgow.

Chris Wilkinson Chris Wilkinson was the father of nanotechnology at the University of Glasgow. His great interest in ‘making things’ and insatiable curiosity across a broad range of science led to major advances in nanoelectronics, cell engineering and nanomagnetism. In the process, he became one of the most cited engineers in Scotland.

Born in 1940 Chris studied Physics at Balliol College, Oxford before moving to Stanford University where he obtained a doctorate in applied physics. After 2 years at the English Electric Valve Company, he joined the Electronics and Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Glasgow, where in 1992 he was appointed James Watt Professor of Electrical Engineering. He held this post with distinction until his retirement in 2005.

Chris’s early work involved the interaction of sound and light, in particular the way in which light waves could be guided, with a view to realising an optical communication system. Such work required the fabrication of structures on a very fine scale and Chris developed an interest in exploring what limited just how small structures could be made. He introduced electron beam lithography to the University and rapidly became a leading international force in nanotechnology. In 1987 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, one of many awards bestowed on him by learned societies.

Whilst his initial successes were in high speed electronic devices, much of Chris’ later work led to a new dimension in cell biology. Working with Adam Curtis he introduced nanofabrication to biology as a wholly new tool which spread quickly beyond Glasgow. He was also instrumental in setting up Kelvin Nanotechnology in 1997, to facilitate the commercialisation of the world-class technology and expertise in the Department of Electronics and Electrical Engineering. He was a Director until January 2012.

Chris had an inter-disciplinary approach to research, linking physics, engineering and biology. He was an inspiration to those around him and recruited many talented people to Glasgow over the years. He cared deeply about young researchers and technicians, playing a major role in the University in the development of both. His colleagues viewed him as ‘challenging but stimulating company’, ‘a man with a glint of steel and great determination’ and ‘glorious when arguing over a point of science as if it were the whole world’. He was someone to look up to, but impossible to emulate.

Chris always applied his engineering and practical mind to personal issues. When his first grandchild was born with a chromosome 18 deletion, he researched it thoroughly and then helped form Chromosome 18 Registry and Research Society Europe, linked to the parent body in the USA. This organisation now has a network across Europe, supports research and organises conferences for affected families.

Beyond the University he led a full and varied life. He enjoyed working on his allotment with his wife, Judy. Indeed, it was conversations in the allotments with Adam Curtis, who had a plot close by, that led to the pioneering bioengineering research. However Chris was at his happiest in the mountains, whether in Scotland or elsewhere, and he and Judy were active members of the John Muir Trust.

Chris died on 23 February. He is survived by his wife, Judy, three children Rona, Kit and Maggie and four grandchildren. 

First published: 15 March 2012

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