Obituary – Professor Jim Charles FREng FRSA HON FIMMM

Fellows' Lounge
24 Apr 2018

Professor J A Charles FREng FRSA HON FIMMM, 1926-2017

James Anthony (Jim) Charles was born on 23 August 1926. He entered the Royal College of Science in London in 1943, aiming initially for chemistry but turning to metallurgy in the Royal School of Mines (RSM) in 1944, greatly enjoying that course. On graduation in 1947 he expected to be called up, but the government had determined that those with first class metallurgy degrees should go into industry. Jim was directed to J Stone & Co where he worked mainly on bearing metals. In 1950, he moved to the British Oxygen Research and Development Company (BORAD) to work on oxygen cutting and later on the use of oxygen in process metallurgy, leading to his first book Oxygen in Iron and Steel Making (1956).  

After ten years at BORAD, Jim moved to a lectureship at Cambridge University and later a Fellowship at St John’s College. He supervised an impressively wide range of research projects, mostly with links to industrial practice. His teaching led to the book Selection and Use of Engineering Materials, the first edition (1984) written with Andy Crane of Imperial College. He was often sought out as a consultant by industry, the DTI and SERC. His interest in archaeometallurgy is remembered for raising the standard of metallurgical discussions in archaeology and he also gave important professional help to several departments of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Following retirement, he wrote three books – Out of the Fiery Furnace (2000), primarily an account of his professional life, Light Blue Materials (2005), with Lindsay Greer, a history of the Cambridge Metallurgy, and Materials Department and One Man’s Cambridge (2006), which focuses mainly on his father’s life and achievements. 

Jim was always actively involved with professional societies and was a strong advocate of amalgamation of the many professional institutes and learned societies that once covered metallurgical interests. As a Vice-President of both the Metals Society and the Institution of Metallurgists, he played an important role on the committee tasked with bringing these together to form The Institute of Metals in 1985, then serving on that Institute’s Executive Committee and as a Vice-President. He served on the Editorial Board of Metals Technology for seven years, continuing onto that of its successor Materials Science & Technology for 17. With Gerry Smith (for both) and Geoff Greenwood (for the latter) he helped edit books of collected papers marking the 70th birthdays of Sir Alan Cottrell (1990) and Sir Robert Honeycombe (1992).

Recognition of Jim’s work came in many ways including: the Cambridge ScD degree (1973), Reader in Process Metallurgy (1978) (there were few Professors then), Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (1983), Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (1985); and, in 2002, Honorary Fellow of the then Institute of Materials. He was awarded the Beilby Medal and Prize by the Royal Society of Chemistry (1965), and the Hadfield Medal and Prize (1977), the Kroll Medal and Prize (1989), and, with YW Cho, the Elegant Work Prize (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 University College London.

Always resolutely a metallurgist, Jim Charles was particularly interested in industrial processes, especially extraction and steelmaking, but his intuitive understanding of his subject led to important work in archaeometallurgy and museum collections. He was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, with wide-ranging interests, and was greatly appreciated by students and colleagues. He died on 13 November 2017. 

Dr John Leake FRSA FInstP CPhys

An obituary of Dr Charles also appears on the Cambridge Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy at

A Memorial Service for Dr Charles will be held in St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge on Saturday 26 May at 12 noon. All are welcome.