Colin Banwell      13.03.1933 to 25.11.2022


An obituary by Lucy Banwell and Elaine McCash has been published by the Royal Society of Chemistry and by McGraw Hill (  This note provides more detailed information on Colin’s contributions to the University of Sussex.

He was one of a group of seven, who were tasked in 1962 with setting up a chemistry department at the then new University of Sussex.  The others, besides Colin and me, were Edward Bishop, Colin Eaborn, Richard Jackson, Eric Peeling, and Alan Pidcock, along with Peter Gilliver (Laboratory Superintendent) and Nancy Holmes (School Secretary).  I think we had had two preliminary meetings, but there were no government rules to prescribe course content and only a few administrators from the Registrar’s Office, a mile away in the big house in Stanmer Park.

Sussex was one of six new universities intended to expand rapidly and inject new life and academic excellence into Higher Education after the constraints of World War 2.  We recruited another seven or so staff in each of the next two years.  Research in chemistry was undergoing far-reaching changes, and we thought of ourselves, perhaps pretentiously, as pioneers.  Analytical techniques now used routinely in chemical research were not widely available in 1962, so in the exploration of new areas highlighted during the war, such as drugs (like penicillin), polymers, plastics, and semiconductors (for computers), had to be studied step by step.  Intermediates had to be carefully isolated and characterised by methods that had been in use in pre-war times.

New analytical methods were, however, being developed.  An important group of these involved looking at how electromagnetic radiation (e.g., ultra-violet (UV) and visible light, heat, radio-waves) was changed when it bounced off or came through samples.  Because the fundamental principles were similar over the wide spectrum from high energy UV to low energy radiation used in magnetic resonance, the new subject was known as spectroscopy.  By the 1970s chemists were using a range of spectrometers and doctoral theses contained dozens of diagrams called spectra.

It would be misleading to claim that Colin played a unique part in effecting the transformation of the landscape of chemical research in the post-war decades, but, like most scientists, the shape of his academic career, in both research and teaching, was markedly influenced by the academic needs and industrial opportunities of his time.

He was born in Eastbourne and, at the end of his school career, was awarded an Open Scholarship at Magdalene College, Cambridge.  Like most students (there were very few exceptions during a time of political uncertainty), Colin could not take up his university place until he had completed two years of  National Service in one of the three armed forces.  Many grumbled at this “waste of time” but used the opportunity to acquire skills that were unusual in first year students, e.g., they became fluent in another language, or they learnt how to put together and repair electronic equipment or computers.

Colin graduated in 1957 with a first-class degree in Natural Sciences.  He was then enrolled as a PhD student with Norman Sheppard, who at that time was engaged in persuading distinguished inorganic or organic chemists, such as the head of department Sir Alexander Todd, of the value of spectroscopy in his own laboratory at Cambridge.

Colin’s doctoral work was on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.  Because of its ability to give detailed information about hydrogen atoms without destruction of samples, this remarkable technique revolutionised research in organic chemistry from about 1960 and made possible, a few years later, the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) for widespread use in diagnostic medicine. (NMR also finds applications in inorganic chemistry, but the sensitivity varies considerably from element to element.)  After obtaining his doctorate, Colin worked for two more years in Cambridge and Switzerland before he came to Sussex, where his skills in computer literacy, administrative experience, the ability to explain sophisticated mathematical ideas to non-specialist students, and his military habit of arriving at his desk at 7am, were put to good use.

He was responsible for the early introduction of computers in the School of Chemistry and Molecular Sciences (MOLS) administration, after he obtained one of the very first of the Commodore PET machines.  It was difficult to persuade the secretarial staff to accept the idea of word processing.  One of their jobs each term was the production of tutorial reports.  There were three of these for each student every term, a hugely tedious task for the School Office.  Colin completely automated the process and, in so doing, convinced the secretaries that office computers had a future.

One of the key words in the early years of the University was ‘interdisciplinarity,’ so sometimes chemists and physicists shared courses, in a deliberate attempt to break down barriers between subjects.  This was particularly demanding for teachers of subjects like spectroscopy, where many students focused on the applications of techniques rather than the techniques themselves.

Colin quickly realised that there was no suitable textbook for this sort of student and decided to write one himself.  The first edition, published in 1966 and endorsed by Norman Sheppard as excellent, was a best seller.  After two further editions, a fourth edition in collaboration with Elaine McCash appeared in 1994.  For more details see the obituary by Banwell and McCash.

We asked some Sussex graduates to comment about it.  One student from the first cohort at Sussex, now a senior professor, recalls his tutorials with Colin.  He found Fundamentals of Molecular Spectroscopy invaluable in his student days and still keeps the Fourth Edition on his shelf.  The enduring influence of the book is evident in another email from a member of staff who took up his first appointment as a university teacher this year.  He says “Fundamentals is a wonderful piece of work.  I first came across the text in my own undergraduate studies and I wish I had picked it up sooner than I did.  It enabled me as an undergraduate to develop a much clearer understanding of my lectures and to make links between the fundamentals of different spectroscopy techniques across the electromagnetic spectrum.  It has had a place on my bookshelf and indeed in my heart since then.  I was very grateful to have access to it as a PhD student when teaching in undergraduate laboratory courses.  I currently teach a second-year spectroscopy module and am often heard to repeat the phrase “Make sure you look at Banwell and McCash.” I truly hope that my students take this advice and that they can enjoy a similar journey with the text.”

Comments such as these show that the book has had an unusually long working life as a textbook (well over 50 years so far).  Initially, however, it attracted criticism from distinguished scientists who would have liked more mathematical rigour.  It is clear, however, that there is a wide-ranging market for books that emphasise unchanging “fundamentals”, as well as specialised monographs.

Sussex graduates have fond memories of Colin’s tutorials.  These comprised groups of five students and were used in the teaching of most chemistry courses in the early years of the University.  Colin’s tutorial students sensed his ability to bridge the interdisciplinary gap and to integrate the complementary insights of physics and chemistry.  One of them wrote to us recently: “I remember him as being very pleasant and helpful” but he shrewdly added “I think he was also quite shy; always approachable but not spontaneously sociable.”

Colin was appointed as Sub-Dean, responsible for welfare of students in the School, in succession to Bill Bott, and was extremely effective, popular and sympathetic in the role.  When he eventually handed the job to Michael Ford-Smith, the students, knowing his love of Wagner, clubbed together and bought him the complete LP set of the Ring Cycle.  We know of no other chemistry sub-dean who was recognised by his students in this way.

The appointment at Sussex of many young staff at the same time led to intense competition for promotion.  Staff were assessed on their research, teaching, and administration but the first was sometimes better rewarded that the other two, where Colin undoubtedly excelled.  Perhaps Colin came to feel that his efforts were not well recognised, and this led to his eventually leaving Sussex in 1987 to take up a post in Brunei, where he was asked to oversee the setting up of a new Department of Chemistry.  He and his family moved to France in 1992 and he continued work on his book.

I am grateful to the flowing colleagues and students whose comments are included in this obituary: Andy Andews, Norman Billingham, Andrew Hudson, Michael Ford-Smith, Alan Pidcock and James Stubbing.

David Smith