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Staff Memories - David Hirst

I joined the University in October 1965 as an Assistant Lecturer in the School of Molecular Sciences. The aim of the department was to broaden a conventional chemistry course to embrace the boundaries of chemistry with biology and with physics. However, sixth form students didn’t know what Molecular Sciences was and our applications suffered. We subsequently became the Department of Chemistry.

My interview, which took place more than a year earlier, was held in the lounge of International House in New York and was very informal by present day standards.

I had got married in Boston, USA in late July and my wife, Judy, and I arrived in Coventry at the end of August 1965 to look for a place to live. We went up to the University (which was then just on the Gibbet (East) Site) and looked for the School of Molecular Sciences. The building was far from complete and the offices had no outside walls.

While we were looking for a flat we were housed in Lyndon House (in Spencer Avenue, Coventry) which was a hotel that the University had bought to use as a hall of residence. Through the good offices of Len Wilson (Furniture and Equipment Officer) we acquired from Lyndon House a minimal set of furniture that was surplus to the requirements of the hall of residence.

By 1965 student dress had become very casual and the Vice Chancellor, in his welcoming address to the first intake of students, said that he found it hard to distinguish students from building workers. Eventually he decided that students switched off their transistor radios before going into the Library.

With regard to teaching I was thrown in at the deep end. I believe that it had been the intention for ‘A’ level mathematics to be an entry requirement for Molecular Sciences. However, about a dozen of our first intake had failed ‘A’ level mathematics and it seemed inappropriate to send these students to a Mathematics for Science course taught by the School of Mathematics which at that time was staffed entirely by pure mathematicians. So I was asked on October 1 if I would put on a course for these students starting almost immediately. There was no induction course for new lecturers in those days. I think I was given a lot of freedom to decide the content of the course with very little scrutiny from senior colleagues.

In an attempt to broaden the outlook of Warwick students, Professor Phillips Griffiths (Philosophy) organized a course entitled Enquiry and Criticism to be attended by all first year undergraduates. There was a weekly lecture by a professor in which he tried to communicate the essence of his subject and volunteers from the academic staff conducted a seminar on the topic. My one recollection of participating in this course as a tutor was of Christopher Zeeman (Mathematics) discussing a theorem which showed that you couldn’t comb a hairy ball smooth. The course didn’t survive more than a couple of years because academic staff didn’t feel they had time to spare from teaching their own subject and getting research going.

With a fairly small staff in the early years there was some social life in the University. Lady Butterworth started a wives group which, in addition to organizing some social functions and a Christmas party for children, enables staff to buy and sell items of baby equipment.

October 1966 saw the move of many departments to the Main Site. Humanities occupied the two upper floors of the Library. One of my colleagues in Molecular Sciences had a very heavy magnet. Although the floor of his new laboratory had been designed to support the weight of the magnet, the floor in the corridor had not. The outer wall of the laboratory had to be removed to get the magnet in.

Dr David M. Hirst
Department of Chemistry 1965 - 2003