Skip to main content

Sutherland, Sir Gordon Brims Black McIvor, 1907-1980 (Knight, physicist)



  • Existence: 1907 - 1980


Sir Gordon Brims Black McIvor Sutherland (1907-1980), physicist, was born in Caithness, Scotland. He was educated at Morgan Academy, Dundee, and St. Andrew's University, from which he graduated with an M.A. in mathematics and B.Sc. in physics in 1929. He spent the following two years in Cambridge, where he decided to abandon theoretical physics in favour of experimental work on infrared spectra, an interest which continued throughout his research career. During his second year at Cambridge Sutherland met D.M. Dennison and this prompted him to apply for a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship to work under Dennison at the University of Michigan which was then the most advanced centre in the world for the study of infrared spectroscopy. He spent two years at Michigan, returning to Cambridge in autumn 1933. After obtaining his Ph.D. degree in 1934 Sutherland remained in Cambridge, working first with W.G. Penney on the problem of the structure of the hydrogen peroxide molecule, and then with various research students, including G.K.T. Conn, M.M. Davies, E. Lee, and C.K. Wu. During the Second World War he began by working for the Ministry of Supply on unexploded bombs, but in 1941 he returned to Cambridge to develop the use of infrared spectroscopy in the analysis of 'enemy' fuels, which his team undertook in collaboration with H.W. Thompson at Oxford. In 1949 Sutherland returned to the University of Michigan as Professor of Physics, where he built up a successful infrared research group with a strong emphasis on biophysical studies. In 1956 he was appointed Director of the National Physical Laboratory in succession to Sir Edward Bullard, where he remained until 1964, when he became Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The pressures of administrative work in the N.P.L. allowed little time for Sutherland to pursue his personal research interests, but his position as head of a large government laboratory and then of a Cambridge college encouraged a growing interest in the wider issues of science policy and education on which he wrote, lectured and chaired committees throughout the 1960s. He retired from Emmanuel in 1977.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:


Sir Gordon Sutherland: Correspondence and Papers

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS Add.8353
Scope and Contents The collection provides some documentation for most aspects of Sutherland's career, apart from his two periods at the University of Michigan, for which there is virtually no material. For the 1930s there is extensive correspondence, but no laboratory records, and for the wartime period there is a very full sequence of letters exchanged with H.W. Thompson, 1937-1947. Section C contains papers relating to the National Physical Laboratory, and Section D documents Sutherland's involvement with...
Dates: 1921-1982 (Circa)
Conditions Governing Access: Some items are restricted at the discretion of the Keeper of Manuscripts