University home |A-Z|

Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Before and after the Second World War

Trainee dentists working on 'phantom heads', Turner Dental School, 1940
Trainee dentists working on 'phantom heads', Turner Dental School, 1940

Edwardian Manchester was German in its culture - in its science as well as in philosophy and music. The Great War wrecked that attachment. Soon afterwards came the long decline of the cotton trade, the former basis of Manchester's prosperity. The surrounding towns were hard-hit, although Manchester itself was buffered somewhat by the diversity of its industries and service functions. Capital drained from the district; the epitaph of Lancashire cotton was written on the gravestones of Bournemouth.

The inter-war decades were difficult for the University and for the Technical College. The Tech eventually planned an extension, but it was not completed until the 1950s. At Owens, the new buildings between the wars were largely for the Arts departments, but the sciences continued to impress. Organic chemistry thrived under Robert Robinson and then Alexander Todd, physical chemistry under Michael Polanyi. The atomic physics of Rutherford gave way to the crystallography of Lawrence Bragg, and then to the cosmic physics of Patrick Blackett. Douglas Hartree taught applied mathematics, theoretical physics, and pioneered computing techniques. In all these sciences, Manchester, with Cambridge or Oxford, helped support British communities which held their own with the damaged traditions of Germany and the rising institutions of the United States.

It was perhaps in the practical, professional fields that Manchester's reputation most rose. At the Technical College, Miles Walker developed electrical engineering in association with Metropolitan-Vickers; and Willis Jackson, in the Faculty of Science, continued this association around the Second World War. In medicine, the Vice-Chancellor, J S B Stopford, was unable to convert the major clinical chairs to full-time appointments, but in the new specialities, where regional organisations mattered, Manchester medicine benefited from strong local authority support. Harry Platt in orthopaedics and Ralston Paterson at the Christie cancer hospital achieved international reputations. In many of these fields, as in local industry, the models were often American.

CHSTM 010-jodrell-(2)
Jodrell Bank's Lovell radio telescope as it appears today

Undergraduate class in ElectroTechnics, University of Manchester, 1944
Undergraduate class in Electro-Technics, University of Manchester, 1944

Manchester's tradition in chemistry, physics and engineering, plus its size and regional base, meant that it was well placed to benefit from government projects during the Second World War. In many respects these set the agenda which persisted through the 1970s: radio-astronomy, from the wartime radar studies; computing from the work at Bletchley Park on code breaking; nuclear physics and engineering from the bomb projects; pharmaceutical manufacture, as Britain finally caught up with American and European patterns; not least, the National Health Service and state support for clinical research and for marginal medical specialities such as occupational health and rheumatology. In all these areas Manchester was able to achieve new reputations. Sir Bernard Lovell's radio-telescope at Jodrell Bank has become a national symbol for space exploration. The world's first electronic digital stored-program computer, built here by F C Williams and Tom Kilburn, led to close collaboration with Ferranti and then ICL; the project also drew on the very strong Department of Mathematics where Max Newman had collected several of his Bletchley co-workers, among them Alan Turing. Nuclear engineering was a Manchester speciality, linked with the several nuclear installations developed in this region. The local dyestuffs industry developed, belatedly, into ICI Pharmaceuticals (now part of AstraZeneca), which had University links. At the Medical School, the establishment of full time clinical chairs brought Robert Platt to Manchester, to head a Department of Medicine later graced by Douglas Black. These were all formidable initiatives; important aspects of national developments.

The 1950s and 1960s brought considerable expansion of staff and students in British universities. Manchester remained a strong provincial university, though no longer so exceptional. Expansion was particularly notable in the Faculty of Technology which, under Vivian Bowden, became a full university institution 1956. (The Polytechnic would take the non-degree work). Manchester produced some big science and some big scientific statesmen, prominent on the new research councils, and often moving on to London.

Back: The University around 1900
Forward: From the 1980s to Project Unity

Disclaimer | Privacy | Copyright notice | Accessibility | Freedom of information |