Collection: MS 1715: Ernest Gordon Cox Archive

Archive Collection icon Archive Collection: Ernest Gordon Cox Archive


Title: Ernest Gordon Cox Archive

Level: Collection 

Classmark: MS 1715

Creator(s): Cox, Ernest Gordon

Date: 1886-1999

Main language: English

Size and medium: 37 boxes (ca. 730 items), manuscript, typescript, photographs, postcards, press cuttings, and printed material.

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Comprises: Section A, Biographical, including shorter autobiographical and biographical accounts, significant material relating to his career, honours, and birthday celebrations, and photographs taken between 1927-1993 in the Leeds Chemistry Department, the Agricultural Research Council, and crystallographic conferences; Section B, Research, including notebooks, 1927-1946, an alphabetical sequence of topic folders with notes, data, reports, and photographs, and a record of wartime research on explosives; Section C, Second World War, including a record of his activities in the secret service and Belgian Resistance Group G with diaries and photographs; Section D, University of Leeds, including documentation of the Chemistry Department, research papers, and teaching materials for degree courses and postgraduate summer schools on crystallographic methods; Section E, Agricultural Research Council, including documentation of his Secretaryship, notes on index cards and in notebooks, 1961-1971, general correspondence and papers continuing until 1994, an alphabetical sequence of topic folders, and press cuttings for the period 1969-1972; Section F, Lectures and publications, including drafts of his public and invitation lectures, 1930s-1975, and offprints of his scientific papers, 1928-1986, with some record of his letters to the press and book reviews; Section G, Societies and organisations, including documentation of a small number of such bodies, notably the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Royal Institution, and the Royal Society; Section H, Visits and conferences, including some papers on early national and international crystallography meetings and a visit to Israel in May 1964 to examine the administration of agricultural research there; Section J, Correspondence, covering the period 1916-1996 arranged by him into alphabetical and chronological sequences, including 'Pre-War Scientific Correspondence', 'private correspondence ARC 1960-1971', and an untitled alphabetical sequence of many of his Leeds colleagues and leading figures in agricultural research.

Administrative or biographical history

Ernest Gordon Cox was born on 24 April 1906 in Twerton, in Somerset, where his father was a market gardener. He was educated at the City of Bath Secondary School and the University of Bristol where he graduated with first class honours in physics in 1927. A.M. Tyndall, head of the Bristol Physics Department, recommended Cox to W.H. Bragg and he joined Bragg's team in the Davy- Faraday Laboratory at the Royal Institution in London in 1927. Here Cox's career as a practising crystallographer began. He was assigned the task of finding how the carbon atoms in benzene, known from chemical evidence to be in a ring, were disposed. After some difficulties in keeping the benzene (liquid at room temperatures) crystalline, Cox established that the carbon atoms were at the corners of a regular hexagon, a conclusion of considerable importance for theoretical chemists.

In 1929 Cox, although a physicist, was recruited by W.N. Haworth to the staff of the Chemistry Department at Birmingham University. Here he did pioneer work on the structures of sugars and coordination compounds of nickel, palladium, platinum and other metals. A highlight was the determination of the crystal structure of vitamin C, ascorbic acid, where his X-ray work was done in concert with the chemists. Cox became increasingly interested in the determination of accurate structures from three-dimensional data, for example pentaerythritol (1937) and Glucosamine hydrobromide (1939). In 1936 Cox was awarded his D.Sc. by the University of Bristol and in 1941 was promoted to Reader in Chemical Crystallography at Birmingham.

Cox joined the Territorial Army in 1936 and was an officer in the Birmingham University OTC. Although mobilised in September 1939 he was returned to his university post by November. Here he led an advisory group on explosives for the Ministry of Supply, Cox taking a particular interest in the hazards of static electrification. In February 1942 Cox was recruited by D.M. Newitt, Director of Scientific Research for the Inter-Services Research Bureau (ISRB), to be Senior Officer in charge of the laboratories of the ISBR research at The Frythe, Welwyn, Hertfordshire. ISRB was a cover for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret service whose job it was to support and stimulate resistance in occupied countries. In July 1944 Cox went to France as a Technical Staff Officer (Lt- Col.) in the 21st Army Group HQ. He was employed in succession on liaison with the underground, on the investigation of V-2 rocket sites and on counter-sabotage activities. Cox was in Belgium by September, and had very close contacts with Belgian Resistance Group G through detailed interrogations about their highly successful sabotage work during the enemy occupation.

In 1945 Cox was appointed as one of the Professors of Chemistry at the University of Leeds. There he built a happy Department of Inorganic and Structural Chemistry and a strong all-round group in chemical crystallography. He was keenly aware of the importance for crystallography of developments in apparatus and computing. In his first years at Leeds he took a particular interest in the design and production of a Weissenburg camera and in the use of Hollerith punched-card equipment. He was quick to see the potential of electronic computers, sending one of his team to the first programming school at Cambridge in 1950 and from 1952 exploiting the Ferranti Mark I computer at Manchester. Successful new experimental work on benzene took place in a cold room in which crystal, apparatus and crystallographer could be contained.

Cox’s team at Leeds produced a succession of high quality structure determinations, often setting the standards for others to follow. Many analyses concerned relatively simple molecules, such as heterocyclic sulphur compounds, with the aim of establishing reliable values of standard bonds. The work on stereochemistry of coordination compounds was extended, for example to include the new organic compounds of platinum. Cox led the university bid for a Ferranti Pegasus computer. Installed in 1957 his crystallographers were its largest users. He contributed to the wider running of the university, and served on outside committees, for example International Union of Crystallography Commissions on Crystallographic Apparatus, 1948-1957 and Crystallographic Data, 1954-1960. Cox was chairman of the X-ray Analysis Group, 1956-1959.

In 1957 Cox was appointed a member of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and after negotiations in the summer of 1959 appointed Secretary (Chief Executive) of the Council from 1 July 1960. At that time the ARC was responsible to the Lord President as Minister for Science and Technology, Lord Hailsham. It enjoyed scientific independence, drawing up its own research programmes, commissioning work and funding special projects while dealing with the Treasury over budgets. However, Cox became less content when, as a result of the Science and Technology Act (1965), the research councils, previously funded by the Treasury, were transferred to the Department of Education and Science. He became concerned by threats to his independence from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries which were given substance, for example, by the agreement of the Prime Minister in December 1969 to the setting up of a secret Whitehall committee chaired by Mr S.P. Osmond of the Treasury to consider the future of the ARC and whether it should be taken over by the MAFF. There was no quick decision by government in part due to the June 1970 General Election and throughout 1970 and 1971 Cox continued to promote the ARC's cause. After Cox’s retirement Victor Rothschild, as chairman of the Government’s Central Policy Review Staff proposed to apply his customer/contractor principle. Cox saw this as a major threat to the survival of the ARC and publicly expressed his strong opposition to the Rothschild proposals.

Amongst the achievements of Cox’s Secretaryship were the establishment of new Units, including the Unit of Nitrogen Fixation in 1963 under the direction of Joseph Chatt and the Unit of Structural Chemistry in 1966 under the direction of R.S. Nyholm. The ARC had assumed responsibility for food research in 1959 and two new research institutes were established in Cox’s time, the Meat Research Institute near the University of Bristol in 1963 and the Food Research Institute in association with the University of East Anglia in 1965. In retirement Cox gave valuable voluntary service to the British Association as a honorary general secretary, 1971-1976 and to the Royal Institution as honorary treasurer, 1971-1976.
In 1929 Cox married Lucie Baker with whom he had a daughter, Patricia Ann and a son, Keith. Both achieved distinction. Patricia became Under Secretary, Scottish Home and Health Department and Keith (FRS 1988), Reader in Geology at Oxford University. Lucie Cox died suddenly in 1962 and Cox subsequently married Mary Rosaleen Truter, his former Leeds colleague and then Deputy Director of the ARC Unit of Structural Chemistry, in 1968.

Cox was elected FRS in 1954 and knighted in 1964. He died on 23 June 1996.

For further information about Cox’s career see D.W.J. Cruickshank, ‘Sir Ernest Gordon Cox, K.B.E’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol 46 (2000). The preceding biographical account draws on the memoir and other obituary writing by Cruickshank and F.S. Dainton.

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Chemistry, Inorganic



World War, 1939-1945

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