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Professor Thomas Charles Buckland McLeish FRS CPhys FInstP (1962-2023)

Theoretical physicist renowned for increasing our understanding of soft matter and his work in biological physics.

A headshot of Professor Thomas Charles Buckland McLeish smiling in shirt and tie

Tom was a theoretical physicist whose work is renowned for increasing our understanding of the properties of soft matter.

His scientific research in soft-matter and biological physics has inspired collaborations with chemists, engineers and biologists to study relationships between molecular structure and emergent material properties. It has been recognised by major awards in the US and Europe.

A physicist, academic interdisciplinary leader and writer, Tom was educated at Sevenoaks School in Kent and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1984 and a PhD in 1987 for research on fluid dynamics.

He began his academic career as a lecturer in physics at the University of Sheffield (1989-1993). He then moved to the University of Leeds, where he was professor of polymer physics between 1993 and 2008.

From 2008, he was professor of physics at Durham University before moving to the University of York in 2018 to take up the newly created chair in natural philosophy. As the inaugural professor of natural philosophy in the School of Physics, Engineering and Technology at York he conceived, won funding for and directed several large interdisciplinary collaborations and most recently led the UK ‘Physics of Life’ network.

He held a five-year Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council personal research fellowship focusing on the physics of protein signalling and the self-assembly of silk fibres.

Tom’s interdisciplinary academic interests included the framing of science, theology, society and history, and the theory of creativity in art and science, leading to the books Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014) and The Poetry and Music of Science: Comparing Creativity in Science and Art (OUP 2019).

He co-led the Ordered Universe project, a large interdisciplinary re-examination of 13th century science. He also contributed to the philosophy of emergence and to research in cross-curricular education for post-16 pupils.

From 2008-2014 he served as pro vice-chancellor for research at Durham University, from 2012-2015 was vice-president for science at the Institute of Physics (IOP), and from 2015-2020 was chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee. He was also a council member of the Royal Society, a trustee of the John Templeton Foundation and chair of Harvard University’s Knox postgraduate awards.

Tom was made a Fellow of the IOP (FInstP) in 2003, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (FRSC) in 2008 and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2011.

In 2007 Tom was awarded the Weissenberg medal by the European Society of Rheology. This is awarded to rheologists conducting research in Europe for outstanding, long-term achievements. He then received the Society of Rheology Bingham Medal in 2010.

Tom’s most recent honour was the Lanfranc award from the Archbishop of Canterbury, which he received in 2018.

He was a lay preacher in the Anglican Church from 1993, delivering sermons at St Michael le Belfrey, York, and he gave frequent public lectures in literature and others at schools on topics across the sciences and humanities, regularly appearing on local and national radio.

Tom is survived by his wife Julie Elizabeth King and their four children.

Thanks to the University of York and for the biographical information.

Photo credit: Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame