Brian Sutcliffe, one of the great characters of the University of York, started as a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at its outset in 1965 and stayed until his retirement in 1998. As a child in WWII, Brian was evacuated from Croydon to Preston, but he returned to grammar school in Croydon. An undergraduate degree in physics and chemistry at the University of Keele was followed by a PhD and later a research fellowship. His PhD was supervised by Roy McWeeny, who he admired immensely. Between his PhD and returning to Keele as a researcher, he held a Fulbright Fellowship at MIT under JC Slater and JW Moskowitz at New York University. Knowledge poured off Brian like a waterfall, not just his own quantum chemistry, but political history, history of science, poetry, and music. This wasn’t shown: he was equally modest about his scientific achievements. He was committed to the students and his colleagues and stood up for high-quality teaching against the pressure to take more students. As a rep for the Association of University Teachers, he was a thorn in the side of the University high-ups but was nevertheless totally devoted to the success of the University.
Brian’s influence on the development of quantum chemistry can be gauged from his visiting professorships in Denmark, the Netherlands, the USA, Japan, Hungary, Germany, Mexico and Belgium. He became a foreign fellow of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in 1992. Some reminiscences of his former research students, collaborators and colleagues help to reveal Brian’s character.
Hazel Cox (Sussex, Chemistry): Brian taught me so much, not just about theoretical chemistry but also about how to be an academic, University politics, and standing up for what you feel is right. Our work together formed the foundation of my passion for quantum chemistry. His deep understanding of the mathematics behind chemistry, and his willingness to share his knowledge, has helped me enormously, and that support has been unwavering for the last 3 decades.
Jonathan Tennyson (UCL Physics): Brian was very much my mentor as a young scientist. I met him as a postdoc in Nijmegen where he held a visiting Professorship for the first part of my stay. Brian gave a lecture there entitled “Sex and the single electron” - he attracted a huge audience and had everyone in stitches. He inducted me into a whole new area of science upon which I have built my career. His deep understanding of the problems we worked on was fundamental to our work together and widely underappreciated.
Michael Chiu: As Brian's first graduate supervisee from York, I shared a large office with another graduate and a £1000 Hewlett Packard programmable calculator. When I asked Brian about his own research as a doctoral student, he told me that he had carried out his calculations on a Whirlwind computer with 24 bits of memory.
Bruce Gilbert (York, Chemistry): My first and lasting impression of Brian was formed on meeting him with a very small group of academics early in 1965 to design the Chemistry course. Then, as ever, he showed a brilliant mind, incredibly wide knowledge, deep interest in teaching and learning, and an awesome background in Maths and Quantum chemistry. I'd never met a polymath before, let alone worked with one.
Tony Sudbery (York, Mathematics): Brian and Jim Matthew formed a classic double act delivering wonderfully entertaining and informative public lectures. Brian's interests went well beyond the confines of quantum chemistry; he had a wide knowledge of philosophy, and I remember deep and extensive discussions on the philosophy of quantum theory.
After the premature death of his first wife, Eileen, in 1992, Brian married Sylvia Winstanley who had been the first Departmental Secretary in York but then lived in Brussels. He leaves a son Edmund and a daughter Caroline from his first marriage. The painting shows Brian with Sylvia.