Barrie Marson obituary

Other lives: Chief executive of a pioneering scientific instrument maker

My father, Barrie Marson, who has died aged 88, was the chief executive of a pioneering scientific instrument maker. He was part of a group of technology entrepreneurs who did not differentiate between science and management roles, taking risks that more traditional industries would have balked at.

Throughout the 1960s, some Oxford scientists, led by the physicist Martin Wood, had been working in a Thames-side boat shed, making and selling high-strength magnets for laboratory research. In 1971, and at a financial low-point, Oxford Instruments found in Barrie a managing director who could professionalise their operation.

The reinvigorated company knew that one technology held enormous potential – developing a magnet large enough for nuclear magnetic spectroscopy in the human body. This was a world-class goal, and although Barrie called it “a highly speculative technology venture”, the first Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (now MRI) imaging magnet was produced by them in 1977 for Peter Mansfield at Nottingham University.

Through its enhancement to superconductivity, this now familiar technology became hailed as the greatest achievement in medical diagnostics since X-rays. As chair, Barrie saw the company head off multiple takeover bids and helmed their stock market flotation. In 1984 he was appointed OBE.

Barrie was born in Nottingham, the son of Sydney Marson, a lace merchant, and Winnie (nee Tatham), who was also from a lacemaking family. Winnie died in childbirth when Barrie was three. He was educated at Nottingham high school and studied physics at the city’s university, where he met Lucy Hinsley; they married in 1954. She became a scientific research librarian at the Institute of Agricultural Engineering, and a scientific reader for the Oxford English Dictionary.

By way of national service, Barrie flew in the University Air Squadron, training in the De Havilland Tiger Moth, and in 1952, he joined the De Havilland aircraft corporation at Hatfield, as a flight test engineer. His day job was taking airborne readings in the company’s Mosquito fighter-bomber, piloted by the famous test pilot Desmond “Dizzy” De Villiers, with Barrie shoehorned into the nose cone.

In 1957 he joined Kent Instruments as a lead design engineer, overseeing the integration of fledgling digital computers into their industrial control systems, eventually founding his own division within the company.

Then he joined Oxford Instruments and followed his 15 years there with part-time directorships and non-executive roles in technology companies before retiring in 2002.

Living in Hampshire, he devoted himself to community enterprises; as a keen sailor, fundraising for the RNLI, volunteering for the community transport scheme, and acting as treasurer for a youth club, well into his 80s. He was an avid local historian and played a key role in preserving some important heritage features of the village of Wickham.

Lucy died in 2010. Barrie is survived by his children, Robert, Tony, Georgina and me, and grandchildren, Jessica, Theo, Oliver and Josephine.

James Marson

The GuardianTramp

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