Catalogues of the papers and correspondence of Sir Alec (Alexander Walter) Merrison, physicist, 1924-1989

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The material is presented in the order given in the List of Contents. It covers the period 1931-2002 but principally covers his career from the late 1960s.

Section A, Biographical, includes extensive biographical material, including obituaries and tributes and articles composed in his lifetime. Documentation of his career, honours ands awards includes the Institute of Physics' C.V. Boys Prize, Merrison's election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society and various honorary degrees and fellowships, chiefly from the 1980s. There are diaries for the year 1969 and much of the 1980s, which complement his engagement diaries in section B. Other material includes the letters of condolence received by Lady Merrison from friends and colleagues after his death and newspaper cuttings and photocopies of articles about Merrison.

Section B, University of Bristol, is short. It includes material relating to his appointment at and retirement from Bristol and some of the functions he attended. Most significant is the complete run of his engagement diaries as Vice-Chancellor covering the period 1971-1984.

Section C, Publications, includes a short sequence of drafts 1969-1979, mostly relating to particle physics, and a longer sequence of off-prints covering the period 1950-1988. The subjects covered include early work on neutron detectors, research on electron decay and particle physics, and the design of synchrotrons, as well as later publications on issues such as university research and science and government. This sequence is of particular note as Merrison often kept related correspondence and papers with his filed off-prints. The section concludes with a short sequence of editorial correspondence, reviews and letters to the press.

Section D, Lectures and broadcasts, covers the period 1965-1988. It includes lectures, orations and talks given as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol and speeches to national and local associations and societies as chairman of a government committee or in another official capacity. There are few lectures on purely scientific topics. Subjects typically include the funding and administration of universities, the relationship between science and government and funding of medical care. Most of the material is typescript notes for the lecture and not all have either a title or indication of the occasion.

Section E, Societies and organisations, is the largest in the collection. It includes documentation of Merrison's connection with 29 Bristol, national and international organisations. The largest component of this section relates to his service for the Department of Energy on the Severn Barrage Committee, the documentation providing comprehensive coverage of the work of the Committee in assessing the potential advantages and difficulties involved. Although material relating to some of Merrison's other significant associations, such as his chairmanship of the Royal Commission on the National Health Service, is sparse, there is documentation of Merrison's connection with scientific bodies such as CERN, with papers covering his Presidency of the Council 1982-1985, and the Institute of Physics (President 1984-1986). There is extensive material relating to his Chairmanship of the Universities Superannuation Scheme as a member of the Management Committee, director and later Chairman. The section includes some coverage of Merrison's support for local causes such as the Avon Riding Group for the Disabled. There is also documentation of his post-retirement work as a director of Lloyd's Bank and the Western Provident Association.

Section F, Correspondence, is slight. It dates from 1969 to 1988 and chiefly relates to Merrison's official engagements and responsibilities as Vice-Chancellor, chairman of the Advisory Board of the Research Councils, chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, and other offices and posts. There are also sequences of postcards and other informal greetings, invitations to functions and occasions including funeral and memorial services, and references and recommendations.

There is also an index of correspondents.

Administrative / Biographical History

Alexander Walter Merrison was born in Wood Green, London on 20 March 1924. He attended Tottenham Grammar School and then Enfield Grammar School, before going on to King's College London (which had been evacuated to Bristol during the Second World War) where he graduated B.Sc. with First Class Honours in 1944. Merrison's first appointment was as an Experimental Officer working on radar at the Signal Research and Development Establishment, Christchurch, Hampshire 1944-1946. In 1946 Merrison joined the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell, as Senior Scientific Officer where he began research in nuclear physics and developed some of the earliest neutron spectrometers. He remained at Harwell to 1951, when he moved to the University of Liverpool as Leverhulme Fellow and Lecturer (Ph.D. 1957). Here he changed the direction of his research and began work on elementary particle physics, a discipline beginning to flourish with the development of proton synchrotron machines. He continued this line of research for the next ten years at Liverpool and CERN, where he was Senior Physicist 1957-1960. Merrison returned to Liverpool in 1960 to take up the Chair in Experimental Physics, holding this post to 1969. In 1962 Merrison was also appointed the first Director of the new Daresbury Nuclear Physics Laboratory, where he was responsible for the construction of the 5 GeV electron synchrotron ' NINA '. The Laboratory was officially opened in 1967.

In 1969 Merrison left Liverpool to become Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol. Although he initially intended to serve for ten years, he held the post to 1984. During his term of office, he presided over many changes in University structure and funding and oversaw a considerable expansion in size, although towards the end of his tenure he was faced with the need to make controversial reductions in some departments as the government reduced its funding of higher education.

Merrison combined his Vice-Chancellorship with a number of other responsibilities. These included service on government committees. In 1970 Merrison was appointed Chairman of the Committee of Inquiry into the design and creation of steel box girder bridges (reporting in 1973). In 1973 he was made Chairman of the Committee of Inquiry into the Regulation of the Medical Profession. This reported in 1975 and its recommendations were very largely incorporated in the 1978 Medical Practitioners Act. In 1978 Merrison was appointed a member of the Severn Barrage Committee established by the Department of Energy under the chairmanship of H. Bondi to assess the advantages and disadvantages of a ' scheme for harnessing the tidal energy of the Severn Estuary ' and advise the Government on whether to proceed. The Committee reported favourably on the project in 1981. In 1976 Merrison was appointed Chairman of the Royal Commission into the National Health Service. It reported in 1979 and although some of its key recommendations were resisted at the time, a number were adopted in later NHS reforms.

Other responsibilities of Merrison included the Chairmanship of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals 1979-1981, a post he took on at a particularly difficult time for the higher education sector, and the Chairmanship of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils 1978-1983, succeeding Sir Frederick Stewart. Internationally, his association with CERN resulted in his being made President of the CERN Council in 1982. He served to 1985 and his presidency saw Spain rejoining the project and he campaigned to retain UK membership of CERN. As an eminent figure in Bristol life, Merrison also took on a number of local responsibilities. He served as a Governor of the Bristol Old Vic theatre and other city involvements included the Bristol Evening Post and Bristol Waterworks Company.

On retirement from the Vice-Chancellorship of Bristol, Merrison's career took another direction when he became a Director of Lloyd's Bank and Chairman of its Western Regional Board. He was also Chairman of the Western Provident Association.Merrison received the Institute of Physics' Charles Vernon Boys Prize for 1961 for his work on the measurement of electron decay. He was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1969 and knighted in 1976. He received honorary degrees from a number of universities including Bristol, Bath and Liverpool and was appointed High Sheriff of Avon for 1986-1987.Merrison died on 19 February 1989. He was survived by his second wife, Maureen, Lady Merrison, with whom he had a son and a daughter, and two sons from his first marriage. His first wife Beryl died in 1968.

For further information on the life and work of Merrison see E. Gabathuler, 'Sir Alexander [Alec] Walter Merrison, D.L. 20 March 1924-19 February 1989', Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol 48 (2002).


By section as follows: Biographical, University of Bristol, Publications, Lectures and broadcasts, Societies and organisations, Correspondence.

Conditions Governing Access

Visits by appointment. Some form of identification required.

Acquisition Information

The papers were received from Lady Merrison in 2001.

Other Finding Aids

Printed catalogues of the papers and correspondence of Sir Alec (Alexander Walter) Merrison, NCUACS catalogue no 122/08/03.Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.