Department of Physics and Astronomy


Obituary: Emeritus Professor Kenneth F. Smith

Prof Ken Smith

Ken Smith, the founding Professor of Experimental Physics at Sussex, collapsed and died suddenly on 30 March after one of his regular swims with his wife and daughter.

The photograph, taken by his granddaughter Jenny, shows him on his 88th birthday in February at a family occasion in Verbier, Switzerland.

Unlike many of the founding fathers of Sussex, Ken Smith came from a Cambridge background, having taken his doctorate there under the supervision of Otto Frisch, whom he had first met at Harwell.

He went to Harwell soon after the war, having first been recruited in 1944 by Sir John Cockcroft to the new Laboratory of Nuclear Studies at Chalk River in Canada, straight from his first degree (also at Cambridge).

Frisch introduced Ken to atomic beam radiofrequency spectroscopy, and he produced such remarkable results in his PhD thesis that he then became effectively the head of the atomic beams group at the Cavendish Laboratory, where he stayed until he brought his group to Sussex in 1962.

As well as building up his research group, where he developed an international reputation as an outstanding experimentalist, Ken played his part in the administration of the department, serving as the first Chairman of Physics, and then as Dean of the School of Mathematical and Physics Sciences (MAPS) and later as Laboratory Director.

Early on, he was also responsible for advising on the design and construction of what is now called the Pevensey 2 building, making it genuinely a purpose-built physics building. It was the many explicitly physics-related features in this building that enabled me as Head of Department many years later to persuade the senior management that this was really the only building on campus suitable for the reunited Physics and Astronomy department after the formation of the School of Science and Technology (SciTech).

Ken retired in 1988. It was very appropriate that, at a School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) event marking the 50th anniversary of Sussex in September 2011, he was presented with a bottle of champagne as the only surviving founding professor in the School.

Dr Robert Smith, Emeritus Reader in Astronomy

Posted on behalf of: Physics and Astronomy department
Last updated: Thursday, 19 April 2012