Papers and correspondence of Herbert Marcus Powell, 1906-1991

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Biographical material includes obituaries, curricula vitae and Powell's autobiographical drafts principally relating to his family background and school and university education. There are also examples of his short stories and other fiction. Oxford University material includes Powell's undergraduate notebooks and his notes on the lectures of F. Soddy, C.N. Hinshelwood, J.W.J. Taylor and D.L. Chapman, for 1925 and 1926. Chemical Crystallography Laboratory material is not extensive but includes a small number of papers from or relating to Dorothy Hodgkin and Powell's historical notes on the development of chemical crystallography at Oxford. Powell's lecture notes were found in considerable disorder but cover an extended period from 1928 and such topics as crystal chemistry and molecular compounds. Powell's research is represented by laboratory notebooks covering the early part of his career from 1928 to about 1940, including a notebook with lecture notes made during a visit by Powell to the Mineralogy Institute of the University of Leipzig in 1930. There are also later notes and drafts of 1950s work on inert gases, tri-o-thymotide, etc. There are drafts of some of Powell's invitation and publication lectures 1953-1968 and of his scientific papers 1942-1966, including drafts and correspondence relating to his 1960 paper on Japanese chemical writing and his 1966 spoof paper on colour in chemistry. There are also biographical accounts of colleagues in crystallography and chemistry including early recollections of Dorothy Hodgkin at Oxford and drafts for texts by Powell of a general or popular scientific nature. A film on crystal structure made by the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) Film Unit in collaboration with Powell is documented by scripts, drafts and correspondence. Visits and conferences material covers the period 1948-1974. Particularly well documented is his 1962 visit to China as a member of a Royal Society delegation to the Academia Sinica, Peking. There are also papers relating to visits to Romania in 1964 and Russia in 1966 and 1969. Powell's linguistic interests are documented by notes and drafts on his work on language representation. There are also drafts for a course on learning Russian prepared with the scientific student in mind. Scientific correspondence is not extensive. There is, however, an alphabetical sequence of principal correspondents including scientific colleagues such as W. Baker, F.G. Mann and R.S. Nyholm and industrial concerns interested in the applications of Powell's work such as the British Oxygen Company, Imperial Chemical Industries and Johnson, Matthey&Company.

Administrative / Biographical History

Powell was born in 1906. He was educated at Henry VIII School, Coventry, and won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford where he took a first in Chemistry in 1928. Powell made his whole career at Oxford University where he pioneered X-ray crystallography. Dorothy Hodgkin (Nobel Laureate Chemistry 1964) was his first research student. He went on to become first University Demonstrator and then in 1944 Reader in Chemical Crystallography and Head of the Chemical Crystallography Laboratory, before being given a Personal Chair in 1963. Powell became a Professorial Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford in 1963. He retired from his Chair in 1974.

Powell's research field was the determination of crystal structures by X-ray diffraction methods, especially structures with applications to chemical problems, such as the stereochemistry of the elements, metal-metal bonding, the nature of intermolecular compounds and some aspects of optical activity. He also originated and named a new class of molecular compounds (clathrates) in which one atom or molecule is enclosed in a cage formed by others. Hence he was able to prepare stable molecular compounds of inert gas elements and devise the method of separating mirror image molecules by trapping them in left or right handed molecular cavities.

Powell was an excellent linguist with particular accomplishments in Russian and Chinese. In 1960 he published a paper on how to read Japanese chemical papers without having to learn the language, which aroused great interest amongst Western chemists. He also addressed questions of language representation, seeking to represent linguistic communication by a system of visual symbols. Amongst Powell's interests was writing short stories and other fiction.

Powell was elected FRS in 1953. He died in 1991.


By section as follows: Biographical, Oxford, Research, Lectures, publications and film, Visits and conferences, Language, Scientific correspondence. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

Entry permitted only on presentation of a valid reader's card or an Oxford University Card displaying the Bodleian logo. All applicants for new or replacement cards must apply in person, with a recommendation and payment if required, and with proof of their identity.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Herbert Marcus Powell (1906-1991) by P. Harper, J. Alton and T.E. Powell, NCUACS catalogue no. 58/1/96, 42 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Custodial History

Received for cataloguing in 1992 by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from Mrs Primrose Powell, widow, through the good offices of Dr C.K. Prout, Chemical Crystallography Laboratory, Oxford. Placed in Bodleian Library (gift) in 1996.