Sir Martin Wood obituary

Engineer and entrepreneur who founded Oxford Instruments and made the UK’s first MRI body scanner

In 1959 Martin Wood asked his boss at the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford University, if he could start a company making specialist magnets for research. At that time the concept of a spinout was unheard of in that university, but the easy-going Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti offered every support. He asked only that Martin, the physics department’s resident engineer, remain in the lab for another 10 years. Working out of a shed in his back garden, Martin, who has died aged 94, laid the foundations of the global business Oxford Instruments, his wife, Audrey, taking on the administration.

Martin’s role in the Clarendon Laboratory was to manage the high magnetic fields facility, designing and making powerful electromagnets that Kurti and his colleagues used to investigate materials at very low temperatures. The generators to power the magnets ran only at night, as they required a substantial fraction of the local power station’s output. As former students left to continue their work elsewhere, they would ask Martin to make magnets for their new labs. Starting a company was the realisation of his long-held ambition to create a productive and rewarding working environment.

Two years after he founded Oxford Instruments, the advent of superconducting materials meant that he could run an extremely powerful magnet from a car battery. Martin seized the opportunity and his company grew rapidly to become a global leader in designing and making superconducting magnets. They made it possible to realise the vision of Peter Mansfield at the University of Nottingham and others, to create images of slices through the living body using the phenomenon of magnetic resonance. Oxford Instruments supplied superconducting magnets designed by Martin for the first whole-body MRI scanners in 1980. He was knighted in 1986.

Martin Wood with one of the earliest with one of the earliest superconducting magnets made by Oxford Instruments.
Martin Wood with one of the earliest superconducting magnets made by Oxford Instruments. Photograph: Audrey Wood

In 1983 the company was floated on the stock exchange with an initial valuation of £126m. By this time the Woods had had ample time to reflect on the obstacles facing entrepreneurs wanting to start new technology-based businesses: finding affordable premises, obtaining start-up capital, getting business advice and recruiting skilled employees. Applying his engineer’s mind and his unique network of contacts in academia, business, and local and national government, Martin set about fixing these problems. He and Audrey endowed a charity, the Oxford Trust, which converted a disused builder’s yard in the city into a set of small units for start-ups, one of the first business incubators in the country. This has now grown into an independent national network of innovation centres, Oxford Innovation.

Other pioneering initiatives started by the Oxford Trust (through which I got to know Martin as a trustee for 10 years) included a venture capital network of small investors, and a programme of educational outreach to engage the next generation of scientists and engineers. It acted as the catalyst for an ecosystem of entrepreneurs and academics across the region. The Oxford Trust continues to operate from a science education centre and centre for innovation (named in honour of the Woods), both opened on a new site in 2019.

Martin had avoided square-bashing in his school’s cadet corps by volunteering to manage some local woodland. He retained his love of woods, endowing another charity, the Northmoor Trust, in 1967 to provide education in wildlife and countryside management. Now known as the Earth Trust, today it owns 1,200 acres on the banks of the Thames near the village of Little Wittenham, all managed as regenerative farming and high-quality wildlife habitat and open to the public. Following a project to review the nation’s forestry that Martin undertook with the forest scientist Gabriel Hemery, in 2009 the Woods endowed a further charity, the Sylva Foundation, to promote stewardship of woodland and the sustainable use of timber.

Martin was born in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, the youngest of five children of Arthur Wood, a civil servant at the Board of Education, and his wife, Katharine (nee Cumberlege). He had a much older half-sister. He attended Gresham’s school in Norfolk. Turning 18 just as the second world war ended, he was offered a choice between the three armed services for his national service, but turned them all down in favour of becoming a miner – a “Bevin boy” – for three years in the South Wales coalfields.

The Coal Board sponsored his engineering degree at Cambridge, and a further two years at the Royal School of Mines (now Imperial College) in London. In 1954 he went back to the mines as a management trainee, but was disheartened by the lack of interest in his ideas for increasing efficiency. He left the industry and in 1955 took the job in Oxford University’s department of physics that would lead to his work on magnets.

He met Audrey Buxton, a Cambridge graduate in natural sciences and English, just before he made the move. She was a young widow with two small children, one of whom, Robin, had to wear callipers because of a polio infection. Martin and Audrey together set about solving the problem of designing callipers hinged at the knee that would allow Robin to ride a tricycle, and they married soon afterwards, in 1955.

Audrey and Martin shared a delight in combining ingenuity with practical good sense, and a commitment to making things better for people. Whether the problem was making a commercial body scanner, developing a regional innovation ecosystem or conserving the countryside, Martin quietly got on with the job of solving it, with a total lack of self-regard.

Audrey survives him, along with his son, Jonny, his stepchildren, Robin and Sarah, six grandchildren and stepgrandchildren, and a step-great-grandchild. A daughter, Patsy, died in 2007.

• Martin Francis Wood, engineer, born 19 April 1927; died 23 November 2021


Georgina Ferry

The GuardianTramp

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