Obituary: Professor Tom McLeish FRS (1962-2023)

News | Posted on Tuesday 7 March 2023

It is with profound sadness that we report the death of Professor Tom McLeish FRS. Tom, who retired from the University in August 2022 on ill-health grounds, passed away on Monday 27 February after a short illness.

Tom’s career as a theoretical physicist was outstanding. His world-leading work on soft-matter physics had both wide-ranging fundamental scientific impact and significant application in industry, and was recognised by a series of awards and prizes, culminating in him being elected as Fellow of the Royal Society in 2011.

Following an early career lecturer position at the University of Sheffield, Tom moved on to the Universities of Leeds and subsequently Durham, where from 2008-2014 he took on the position of Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research. Throughout this period and beyond, Tom’s work was never narrowly defined by a single discipline. His engagement with the interaction of science and theology led him to research in medieval scholarship, literature and philosophy, and to involvement with a wealth of interdisciplinary projects. His book Faith and Wisdom in Science demonstrated considerable biblical expertise, bringing the book of Job into dialogue with a theology of science. An Anglican lay reader, Tom was later awarded the Lanfranc Award for Education and Scholarship by the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘for his record as one of the most outstanding scientists of his generation, and the leading contemporary lay Anglican voice in the dialogue of science and faith’.

In 2018, Tom joined the University of York as Chair in Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics. Tom quickly established himself as a highly valued and inspirational colleague in the Department, contributing hugely to the newly created “Physics of Life” research group, as well as maintaining a leading role in developing the interface of Physics and Biology on the national and international stage. But Tom’s contributions at York, as elsewhere, went well beyond his work in Physics. His work with the Centre for Medieval Studies, the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research, the Department of Education, and more besides, enabled new and exciting cross-disciplinary research of a depth and scope that marked out Tom’s leadership.

The title of Tom’s Chair position at York reflected the essential ethos of his work, placing his scientific enquiries in the perspective of a long history of academic endeavour. Commenting privately on his "Chair of Natural Philosophy", Tom noted " ‘Love of wisdom for natural things’ isn't a bad title for what we do ...".

In his case, it certainly was not, and Tom’s love of wisdom for natural things and its interfaces with other disciplines shone through in all that he did. Tom will be sorely missed by the University community at York and far beyond, and we offer our sincere condolences to his family and friends.