Archive of Sir William Mitchell, 1925-2002

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Biographical material includes obituaries, curricula vitae and bibliographies, and documentation of career, honours and awards. There is a notebook from 1944 with a record of undergraduate lectures on radio at the University of Sheffield, the earliest item in the archive, and papers relating to Mitchell’s application and appointment to his Oxford Chair, his election to the Royal Society and his knighthood.

University of Reading papers chiefly relate to physics teaching, both undergraduate and postgraduate, 1965-1977. There are also a small number of papers relating to university development in the 1970s. There is a significant record of Mitchell’s teaching at Oxford: the 'Optics II’ lecture course, which Mitchell seems to have taken over on his move to Oxford from Reading in 1978; and 'Solid State Option Structures & Dynamics’ 1983.

There is a little general research material comprising a copy of Mitchell’s Ph.D. thesis (University of Bristol 1950); manuscript notes, drafts and offprints relating to molten salts, c.1972-1980; and a little research correspondence, 1966-1996, including an exchange with C.A. Coulson on energy values in interstitials and vacancies, 1966. However, the great bulk of the research material which forms by far the largest component of the archive relates to Mitchell’s interest in diamond. There is documentation of diamond research at Reading and, much more extensively, the Clarendon Laboratory Oxford, 1960-1996 and Mitchell’s long association with De Beers as Consultant and from 1982 Chairman of the Diamond Research Committee, the liaison committee between groups of scientists in UK universities and De Beers Industrial Diamond Division (DEBID), which sponsored the research. The papers include correspondence between Mitchell and DEBID and Mitchell and British and South African scientists undertaking diamond research, agenda and minutes of meetings, budgets, Diamond Conference papers, research reports and research proposals.

The publications record comprises documentation of both Mitchell’s own publications and of his editorial work. There are drafts of Mitchell’s publications, 1974-1997, including scientific papers in the areas of neutron scattering and molten salts. However, the most extensive documentation relates to a short piece published in Physics World in 1991 in which Mitchell took a sceptical view of much of the then current climate change discussion. In addition to drafts, proofs and published version of the article, there is correspondence with readers of the article and scientists and others to whom Mitchell sent copies of the article. There is also an incomplete set of offprints of Mitchell’s scientific papers, 1949-1995. Mitchell’s editorial work is represented by a good record of his role as general editor of Oxford University Press’s Series on Neutron Scattering in Condensed Matter, 1987-1996.

Lectures and broadcasts material covers the period 1966-1999. The two earliest items are talks by Mitchell on the science of materials for the BBC Radio programme Science Survey. Lecture topics include diamond, molten salts, neutron scattering, science funding and policy, and global climate. Major addresses on diamond include a Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution in 1988 and 'Fifty Years of University / Industry Collaboration’ at the 50th Diamond Conference sponsored by De Beers in 1999.

There is substantial documentation of Mitchell’s association with 15 British and international, chiefly European, societies and organisations. Of particular importance are the papers documenting Mitchell’s Presidency of the CERN Council in the early 1990s; his long association with the Science Research Council (SRC) / Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) including Mitchell’s Chairmanship of the SERC 1985-1990; the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), 1991-1997; and UKAEA Harwell, 1973-1978. The CERN papers document the President of the Council’s role in relations with individual member countries and in such issues as the US proposal for a Superconducting Super Collider and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider proposal. In addition to documentation of his SERC Chairmanship there are papers relating to the provision of neutron research facilities in Britain including papers of the Neutron Beam Research Unit, Rutherford Laboratory, the SRC Neutron Beam Committee, Rutherford Laboratory Proton Spallation Neutron Source Working Group and the SRC Science Planning Group for Spallation Neutron Source. The SEPP papers are principally Mitchell’s correspondence with its director S. Fred Singer and background material sent to him for information. Mitchell was contacted by Singer after the publication of Mitchell’s 1991 article in Physics World. The Harwell material includes papers relating to neutron beam facilities, the 'New Harwell LINAC’ project and nuclear fusion.

Documentation of visits and conferences mostly relates to Mitchell’s interest in climate change controversy. Visits to South Africa in connexion with diamond research and De Beers are to be found with the diamond research papers. Visits made in connexion with Mitchell’s Presidency of the CERN Council and his Chairmanship of the SERC are to be found with related CERN and SERC papers.

Administrative / Biographical History

Edgar William ('Bill') John Mitchell was born on 25 September 1925 in Kingsbridge, south Devon. He was educated at the local grammar school and Sheffield University where he studied for a degree in physics (awarded 1946). He was employed in the Metropolitan-Vickers Research Laboratory between 1946-1951 during which time he successfully studied for a PhD at the University of Bristol. He was then appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Physics at Reading University where he developed a research programme studying defects in crystalline solids, such as semiconductors, quartz and diamond. In 1957 Mitchell’s first neutron scattering experiment, using the BEPO (British Experimental Pile 'O') reactor at Harwell, showed that neutron scattering could be used to determine the properties of defects in solids, and thus opened up a new field.

His managerial and administrative abilities were demonstrated both at Reading and nationally. In 1960 he set up a novel interdisciplinary course at Reading on the physical properties of materials and in 1961 he was appointed Professor of Physical Properties of Materials. He subsequently became Head of the Physics Department, 1968-1978, Dean of the Faculty of Science, 1966-1969, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, 1976-1978. In the national field he served as Chairman of the Physics Committee of the Science Research Council (SRC), 1967-1970. In 1966 the SRC set up the Neutron Beam Research Committee (NBRC) with responsibility for the funding and organisation of university users of the nuclear reactors at Harwell and Aldermaston. Mitchell served as its chairman for the first eight years. When the government rejected the proposal to build a British high flux beam reactor in favour of joining a similar Franco-German project at Grenoble (Institut Laue-Langevin), Mitchell became heavily involved in the successful negotiations for Britain to join, and served as acting joint director in 1973 and member of the scientific council, 1973-1980. In 1974 the NBRC set up the Neutron Beam Unit at the Rutherford Laboratory, Oxfordshire to support university users of neutrons. In 1977 approval was given to convert the old Nimrod accelerator into SNS (Spallation Neutron Source), subsequently renamed ISIS. Mitchell was an initiator and strong supporter of the project, and was a member of the planning group, 1978-1985.

In 1978 Mitchell was appointed Dr Lee’s Professor of Experimental Philosophy at Oxford University and to a Fellowship at Wadham College. As head of the Clarendon Laboratory he initiated research in various aspects of laser and condensed matter physics and developed his own interests in the properties of molten salts and diamonds. He continued to be active on national and international committees, most importantly as a member of the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC), 1982-1990 and chairman, 1985-1990. The most significant development of his chairmanship was probably the introduction of interdisciplinary research centres in universities to concentrate research funding in key areas such as materials science and electronics, while the most publicly controversial issue was the moving of the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux, Sussex. As a sympathetic European committed to international collaboration, he was a very appropriate choice for the Presidency of the CERN Council at a time of important decisions about its future programme, 1991-1993.

Mitchell’s distinguished career was recognised by many honours including election to the Royal Society in 1986 and a knighthood in 1990. He died on 30 October 2002.

For a fuller account of Mitchell’s career see the memoir by R.A. Cowley in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. 50 (2004), 173-181.


By section as follows: Biographical, University of Reading, University of Oxford, Research: General, Research: Diamond, Publications, Lectures and broadcasts, Societies and organisations, Visits and conferences, References and recommendations.

Conditions Governing Access

Contact the repository for details.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of E.W. J. Mitchell: NCUACS catalogue no. 160/3/2008, 66pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Archivist's Note

Description added by Dr Tim Powell, NCUACS, January 2009

Related Material

There are also significant accumulations of materials relating to De Beers sponsored diamond research in the archives of Mitchell’s Reading colleague R.W. Ditchburn (NCUACS no.6/5/88), deposited in Reading University Library, and Sir Charles Frank (NCUACS 15/8/89 and NCUACS catalogue no. 127/13/03), deposited in Bristol University Library. Ditchburn was Mitchell’s predecessor as Chairman of the Diamond Research Committee and Frank was a member of the Committee.