Born Bangor, September 30, 1914. Died New York, December 6, 2006, aged 92.
A DISTINGUISHED physicist, who acted as a vital link to the pre-war pioneers of nuclear physics, Professor Samuel Devons was a Fellow of the Royal Society for 51 years but spent most of his career in high energy nuclear physics in the US.
He was born in North Wales where his father, Rev David Isaac Devons, was minister. He was a cousin of the eminent Daiches family, headed by Rabbi Salo Daiches in Edinburgh.
David Isaac left Lithuania soon after 1900, in his early 20s and, according to family legend, received his surname from a British immigration officer who used his town of origin, Devoniske, some 30 miles south of Vilna.
His yeshivah education qualified him to serve small provincial communities in York, Bangor, Coventry and Hanley (Stoke-on-Trent), where he died in 1926 at the age of 45.
His wife, Edith, was left a widow with six children. A public appeal was made through the community to help the family, who resettled in Manchester. Despite hardship — eggs were a rare treat — the children throve on an intellectual diet of long Shabbat discussions and made their mark in different fields.
Samuel, the fourth child, who had earlier won a scholarship to Hanley High School, went to North Manchester Grammar School. At 17, he was its first pupil to win a scholarship to Cambridge, he and his late older brother, Ely (a future economics professor at the LSE) both being awarded Manchester City Council scholarships.
He graduated from Trinity College in 1935 and gained his PhD in 1939. In 1938 he married Ruth Toubkin of Manchester.
During the Second World War he served as senior scientific officer in the Air Ministry and Ministry of Aircraft Production, working on anti-aircraft barrages, radar and microwaves.
He moved round the country and, at the end of war, was posted to the USA as UK-US liaison officer based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1946 he returned to Cambridge as lecturer and fellow of Trinity and director of studies. He worked on the linear accelerator at the Cavendish Laboratories under Nobel prize-winner Lord Rutherford, known as the father of nuclear physics. In 1949 he published The Excited States of Nuclei.
Later, while in London as physics professor at Imperial College from 1950-55, he took his young daughters to the children’s gallery of the Science Museum, firing them with his love of questioning and skill at explaining.
In 1955, when he was elected to the Royal Society, he returned to Manchester as Langworthy Professor of Physics and laboratory director at Manchester University.
But he grew frustrated at budgetary constraints and, after a sabbatical at Columbia University, New York, where he worked with another physics “great”, Isidor Rabi, who won a Nobel prize for magnetic resonance detection, he became professor of physics in 1960 until retiring in 1985.
He was chairman of Columbia’s physics department from 1963-67 and director of its Barnard College History of Physics Laboratory from 1970-85.
Far from an ivory-tower academic, shrouded in heavy nuclei, muons, atoms, X-rays and nuclear electric charges — the heart of his research, distilled in his editorship of High Energy Physics and Nuclear Structure (1970) — Professor Devons wanted to made science accessible to non-scientists.
He encouraged students through hands-on experiments and promoted interaction among staff at universities, schools and science museums. He fostered inter-science links, editing Biology and Physical Sciences in 1969.
He held a visiting professorship in India in 1967-68 at Andhra University and Israel in 1973-74 at the Weizmann Institute and Hebrew University. He was a long-serving member of the Weizmann Institute’s board of governors. He won the Rutherford medal and prize in 1970 and gave the Rutherford memorial lecture in Australia in 1989. He was made a fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences in 2001.
With his feeling for history, he recreated historic physics experiments, such as those of Cavendish in the 1770s and Weber and Kohlrausch in 1858, followed by Franklin, Faraday and Volta. For him a “beautiful experiment” had to make a major discovery, be not too expensive or abstruse, and be within the reach of students.
Made emeritus professor on retirement, he stayed active in his field and in 1999 launched EPIC, Emeritus Professors in Columbia, as a repository of scholarly wisdom. When he stepped down as founding president in 2004 he was made president emeritus by acclamation.
He is survived by his wife, Ruth; four daughters, Susan, Judith, Amanda and Cathryn; 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Professor Samuel Devons: hands-on experimenter