Sir Gordon Sutherland: Correspondence and Papers

Scope and Content

The collection provides some documentation for most aspects of Sutherland's career, apart from his two periods at the University of Michigan, for which there is virtually no material. For the 1930s there is extensive correspondence, but no laboratory records, and for the wartime period there is a very full sequence of letters exchanged with H.W. Thompson, 1937-1947. Section C contains papers relating to the National Physical Laboratory, and Section D documents Sutherland's involvement with various societies and organisations, and has considerable material on the formation of the International Organisation for Pure and Applied Biophysics, in which Sutherland played a major part. Section E contains correspondence on issues of science policy, as well as Sutherland's own drafts and reports. The correspondence in Section H dates mainly from Sutherland's period at the N.P.L., all earlier letters being in Section B.

Section A: Biographical and Personal

A.1-A.6 Biographical and Autobiographical; A.7-A.41 Career and Appointments; A.42-A.53 Material relating to the Royal Society Memoir of Sutherland.

Section B: Early Infrared Research

B.1-B.3 Infrared Research in the 1930s; B.4-B.13 Wartime Work on Hydrocarbons; B.14-B.29 Wartime Work on Penicillin; B.30-B.72 Correspondence with Friends and Colleagues, 1933-1947; B.73-B.91 Correspondence with Industrial Firms, 1932-1942; B.92 Postwar Work at the University of Michigan.

Section C: The National Physical Laboratory

C.1-C.10 Appointment and Resignation; C.11-C.35 Internal Administration; C.36-C.52 Relations with the Royal Society and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Section D: Committees, Societies, Organisations (D.1-D.58)

Section E: Education and Science Policy (E.1-E.47)

E.1-E.16 The Brain Drain; E.17-E.34 Royal Society for Technologists; E.35-E.42 University Expansion and Related Topics; E.43-E.47 General Correspondence.

Section F: Visits and Conferences (F.1-F.48)

Section G: Drafts, Lectures, Publications (G.1-G.65)

Section H: General Correspondence (H.1-H.45)

Administrative / Biographical History

Sir Gordon Brims Black McIvor Sutherland (1907-1980), physicist, was born in Caithness, Scotland. He was educated at Morgan Academy, Dundee, and St. Andrew's University, from which he graduated with an M.A. in mathematics and B.Sc. in physics in 1929. He spent the following two years in Cambridge, where he decided to abandon theoretical physics in favour of experimental work on infrared spectra, an interest which continued throughout his research career.

During his second year at Cambridge Sutherland met D.M. Dennison and this prompted him to apply for a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship to work under Dennison at the University of Michigan which was then the most advanced centre in the world for the study of infrared spectroscopy. He spent two years at Michigan, returning to Cambridge in autumn 1933.

After obtaining his Ph.D. degree in 1934 Sutherland remained in Cambridge, working first with W.G. Penney on the problem of the structure of the hydrogen peroxide molecule, and then with various research students, including G.K.T. Conn, M.M. Davies, E. Lee, and C.K. Wu. During the Second World War he began by working for the Ministry of Supply on unexploded bombs, but in 1941 he returned to Cambridge to develop the use of infrared spectroscopy in the analysis of 'enemy' fuels, which his team undertook in collaboration with H.W. Thompson at Oxford.

In 1949 Sutherland returned to the University of Michigan as Professor of Physics, where he built up a successful infrared research group with a strong emphasis on biophysical studies. In 1956 he was appointed Director of the National Physical Laboratory in succession to Sir Edward Bullard, where he remained until 1964, when he became Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The pressures of administrative work in the N.P.L. allowed little time for Sutherland to pursue his personal research interests, but his position as head of a large government laboratory and then of a Cambridge college encouraged a growing interest in the wider issues of science policy and education on which he wrote, lectured and chaired committees throughout the 1960s. He retired from Emmanuel in 1977.

Access Information

Not all of the collection is currently open to readers. Enquiries should be made to the Keeper of Manuscripts and University Archives at Cambridge University Library. Unrestricted material is open for consultation by holders of a Reader's Ticket valid for the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Acquisition Information

Received from Lady Sutherland and Professor N. Sheppard, 1983.


Description compiled by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives.

Other Finding Aids

A full catalogue is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Related Material

Specimens and correspondence relating to Sutherland's work on diamonds are held at the Institute of Geological Sciences (Geological Museum), South Kensington, London.

Material relating to Sutherland's service on two Cambridge University Committees, the Joint Committee on Student Numbers and the Committee of the General Board on Long-Term Development, has been deposited in the Cambridge University Archives.