Obituary - Professor Jack Harris MBE FRS

Materials World magazine
,
1 Jun 2009

Jack Harris, who wrote a regular column for Materials World, 'Material Matters', died on 3 February 2009 from a suspected heart attack. His younger brother, Rex, offers his memories of Jack.


‘We were on the phone and we talked about the great winter of 1947 when he was 14 and I was 7. We lived with our Mam and Dad at Nutfield, a small semi-detached house in the depth of the countryside about eight miles from Chepstow and Newport. It is difficult to believe now but we had no electricity, only oil lamps, and no running water, so we carried crystal clear water from a well 50 yards away at the bottom of the garden.

'Jack and I recalled how we built an igloo and made a sledge out of corrugated iron and rode it down the steep field in front of our house. No health and safety worries then, and I remembered falling into a deep snow drift to be rescued by my brother and the nextdoor neighbour. I still remember looking up at that patch of sky and seeing Jack’s anxious face. On the phone, we laughed over these memories never to be shared again.


Jack's education

‘There are seven years between us so although we both went to Rock primary school in Llanvaches, to Larkfield Grammar School in Chepstow, and then to the Department of Metallurgy at the University of Birmingham, we never overlapped at these establishments. I followed closely in Jack’s giant footsteps but without the mutual embarrassment of being in the same place at the same time. We diverted at Birmingham, when Jack took up Industrial Metallurgy whereas I chose Physical Metallurgy.

'My path clearly indicates the huge influence Jack had on my career, but just like our educational process, we did not even overlap professionally, as materials science is such a diverse subject. I have absolutely no regrets in following Jack into this totally absorbing discipline. In recent years we shared a mutual interest and growing concern over climate change and its consequences.

 

Nine lives

‘Jack was lucky to reach a relatively old age and he did take some time to use up his nine lives. He was a dare devil as a youngster and had brushes with death on a number of occasions. The first I am aware of is when he was on his way home from primary school when he was seven, walking with friends beside the busy A48 London to South Wales road. A neighbour stopped in his car to offer them a lift and one of his young companions ran to the car and was killed instantly by a passing vehicle. Clearly Jack survived, but he often described to me his vivid mental picture, undimmed by the years, of that little girl flying through the air.

‘Another childhood story is of him lying under our Dad’s barrel of cider and catching drips in his mouth. He managed to consume a significant amount of alcohol before being discovered. Further incidents included jumping out of a tree in the garden with an umbrella in a vain attempt to simulate a parachute jump, probably witnessed on a recent trip to the Odeon cinema in Newport. He broke his leg, though the umbrella may have prevented more serious injury.

 

Childhood stories

‘It was not all sweetness and light in our relationship when I was an infant. My birth was heralded by Jack standing at the bottom of the stairs shouting, “You can send that bugger back, we three were alright without him!” Seven years is a large gap to bridge when you are young. During [the recent] cold spell, we were both reminded of how cold it was in our Welsh home when ice formed on both sides of the windows.

'We shared a bed and being so much younger, I went to bed some hours before Jack, and hence got my side of the bed cosy and warm. When my big brother got in, he would push me over to the cold side and when I shouted to Mam and Dad he would hold my head under the clothes until I promised to shut up. Another incident I recall was when Jack put a toad in [their] bed. I reminded Jack of these escapades at an annual dinner of the Birmingham University Metallurgical Society (BUMS) when he was President of it.

 

The university years and married life

‘Despite the teasing I was absolutely heartbroken when Jack went off to university in October 1950, and I missed him terribly. Talking with his contemporaries at Birmingham, I gathered that, as a student, he could be a bit of a hell raiser. I remember him coming home one Christmas with his head swathed in bandages as the result of a night out and a nasty accident on his moped.

‘Like many metallurgists, Jack met his future wife Ann at Birmingham when she was a nurse at the Queen Elizabeth (QE) hospital. They married in Malvern in 1956, where I had the honour of being best man. Jack returned the favour in 1965, when I married Vera, also a nurse at the QE. Jack and I kept in close touch over the years, although it was usually me that rang him as he hated talking on the telephone. He was far more comfortable and adept with the written word. He was always an avaricious reader and, as a school boy, he devoured the Just William books, laughing out loud at the humorous passages.

 

Narrow escapes

‘I have mentioned his brushes with death, and in the latter years there have been others, such as his fall from the top of an apple tree in his orchard in Cam, this time without an umbrella. Vera and I visited him in Gloucester hospital where he was surrounded by tubes and monitors and looked dreadful. Fortunately he made a full recovery and then, on 5 October 1999 at 8.08am he was involved in the Paddington train disaster. A few days afterwards, he proudly showed me the spectacular bruise he sustained as a result of the accident.

'When the collision occurred, Jack was walking to the first class section for his free copy of the Daily Telegraph. It was this part of the train which bore the brunt of the collision and was totally destroyed by the subsequent fire. I leave it to you to judge how many of his nine lives Jack used on that occasion.

‘I haven’t covered his many scientific and literary achievements of which I am immensely proud. Jack showed me what was possible and for that I shall always be grateful.’

 

Jack’s ‘Material Matters’ columns, for which he won the Institute’s 2006 Sir Andrew Bryan award, can be viewed here.