Alan Ward obituary

Other lives: British physicist who spent much of his life in Africa, studying the effects of radioactivity

My father, Alan Ward, who has died aged 96, was a physicist who profoundly influenced science education in Africa.

Born in Woodford, Essex, to Ursula (nee Vale) and Edward Ward, who worked in a bank, Alan went to Chichester high school for boys in West Sussex. Following a wartime degree in physics at the University of Birmingham, he completed a PhD in 1949, after which he was sent by the Atomic Energy Research Establishment to study Thorotrast poisoning in Denmark for two years. He married Honor Shedden, also a physicist, in 1950.

The following year he took up a lectureship at the University College of the Gold Coast (now the University of Ghana), becoming associate professor in 1963. There he set up a radioactivity laboratory, supported by the Radiochemical Centre in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, and conducted experiments that established the toxicity of Strontium-90, an isotope of concern in fallout from nuclear weapons.

Alan built an international network of scientists involved in peaceful uses of radioactivity, and was part of the Atoms for Peace Geneva conference in 1958. His work expanded into using nuclear markers for agriculture and health.

When France set off a nuclear device in Algeria in 1960, he proved the extent of radioactive fallout in Ghana, and provided insights into the impacts on the local population. This resulted in an irate French government sending in an army officer to verify the findings. Ward presented his findings to President Nkrumah, contributing to Ghana breaking off diplomatic relations with France.

In the early 1960s Alan used information from contacts at Cern and the International Atomic Energy Agency to suggest that a proposed Soviet nuclear research project at Kwabenya in Ghana was deeply unwise. His warning upset Nkrumah, and as a result he was asked to leave the country in 1965. For the next 10 years he worked at the University of Zambia in Lusaka, founding a physics department there. He then moved to the Kwaluseni campus of the University of Botswana and Swaziland, lecturing there until 1986.

Throughout their careers, both Alan and Honor played an active role in developing science education, teaching physics at all levels, and supporting the development of applied physics infrastructure in Africa. Their Christian faith was always at the centre of their lives. Both were quiet but vociferous opponents of racist and colonial attitudes and expressed their aspiration to “make themselves redundant”. In 1976, Alan was made OBE.

He retired to the village of Hermitage, in Dorset, in 1986, where he worked for the Open University and the University of the Third Age, became chair of the Battery Vehicle Society, and built electric vehicles both for the road and for his grandchildren to drive in the garden.

Honor died in 2016. Alan is survived by their children, Kristina, Sheena, James and me, nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

Tom Ward

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Frank Barnaby obituary
Radiation physicist at Aldermaston who went on to warn of the dangers posed by the civil and military uses of nuclear energy

Tim Radford

24, Aug, 2020 @3:56 PM

Article image
Letter: Frank Barnaby obituary
David Lowry writes: Frank Barnaby shared his knowledge of nuclear physics and politics with me

David Lowry

16, Sep, 2020 @3:18 PM

Article image
John Stewart obituary
Other lives: Physicist who was a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, for more than 40 years

Mary Stewart

22, Dec, 2016 @6:37 PM

Article image
Phil Davies obituary
Other Lives: Anti-nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and talented amateur musician

Jill Sutcliffe

19, Nov, 2020 @6:10 PM

Article image
Bryan Skipp obituary
Other lives: Engineer, soil scientist and bon vivant

Peter Skipp

10, Sep, 2021 @4:07 PM

Article image
Alan Bell obituary
Other lives: Pioneering expert in DVD and CD technology

Tom Plimmer

29, May, 2016 @2:17 PM

Article image
UK public confidence in nuclear remains steady despite Fukushima

Benefits of nuclear power outweigh risks, say 41% of the British public, according to poll

Alok Jha

09, Sep, 2011 @6:00 AM

Article image
Simon Ramo obituary
Father of the intercontinental ballistic missile

Nigel Fountain

21, Nov, 2016 @1:23 PM

Article image
Burton Richter obituary
American physicist who won the Nobel prize for his groundbreaking particle discovery

Frank Close

01, Aug, 2018 @12:10 PM

Article image
Mark Warner obituary
Pioneering physicist whose study of elastomers opened up new technology for creating artificial muscles

Tom McLeish

23, Jan, 2022 @3:22 PM