Richard Wilson obituary

Other lives: Experimental particle physicist and humanitarian

My father, Richard Wilson, who has died aged 92, was an experimental particle physicist and humanitarian. As a professor of physics at Harvard University his work focused on the structure of the nucleon using Harvard’s cyclotron and other accelerators around the world. When the university’s cyclotron became obsolete, he helped adapt it for the treatment of cancerous tumours.

Dick held principled positions on humanitarian and environmental issues. He was an early supporter of Andrei Sakharov, the dissident Soviet physicist, believing that direct cultural and scientific contact was essential to prevent war.

He was one of the first foreign scientists to visit Chernobyl, in 1987, shortly after the nuclear accident. A TV film crew went with him, and they made Back to Chernobyl (1989), aired on PBS’s Nova programme. He also did extensive studies into the presence of arsenic in water in south-east Asia, and raised funds to provide safe drinking water in many villages, especially in Bangladesh, which he visited every year.

Richard Wilson with children from Durgapur village in Bangladesh
Richard Wilson with children from Durgapur village in Bangladesh Photograph: None

Born in Putney, south-west London, to Percy, a civil servant, and Dorothy (nee Kingston), a teacher, Dick studied at Colet Court and St Paul’s schools, and was evacuated to Crowthorne, in Berkshire, during the second world war. He earned his BA (1946) and DPhil (1949) in physics at Christ Church, Oxford, and completed postdoctoral work under Wolfgang “Pief” Panofsky at Stanford University, California. Pief introduced Dick to his sister-in-law, Andrée DuMond, a library assistant, and, after a whirlwind courtship, they married in 1952.

There was a brief spell back in the UK as a research lecturer at Christ Church, and in 1955 Dick joined Harvard , where he remained until his retirement in 1999.

In all, Dick authored more than 900 scholarly articles and eight books, including, finally, a memoir Physics Is Fun: Memoirs of a Life in Physics (2011). For more than half a century he and Andrée lived in the city of Newton, Massachusetts, where Andrée created an extraordinary garden retreat. Dick enjoyed railroads and mountain hiking with their children. He also loved to sing traditional British folk and music hall songs, often accompanying himself on the concertina.

Andrée died in 2016. Dick is survived by their children, Christopher, Michael, Nicholas, André, Peter and me, three grandchildren, and his brother Geoffrey.

Elaine Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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