Noel Gale, 1931-2014

A leading physicist who switched mid-career to acclaimed collaborative work in archaeology has died

March 6, 2014

Noel Gale was born on 24 December 1931 in Valletta, Malta, where his father was serving in the Royal Navy. He studied physics at Imperial College London and then began a PhD at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, working on ways of applying nuclear physics to medicine, before switching back to pure physics at the University of Manchester.

Once his education was complete, Professor Gale worked as a nuclear physicist at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment’s Harwell Laboratory before joining the University of Oxford’s department of geology (now the department of earth sciences) in the early 1960s. He became a faculty fellow at Nuffield College in 1987 and an emeritus fellow in 1999.

In 1975, a meeting with fellow physicist Wolfgang Gentner of Heidelberg University led Professor Gale to start work on applying the technique of lead isotope analysis to illuminating the origins of ancient Greek silver coins. He went on to develop one of the earliest mass spectrometers specially designed to be used in the field of isotope geochronology – the science of determining the age of rocks, fossils and sediments.

Professor Gale established himself as a leading expert in the analysis of Bronze Age metals. He worked on one project with Colin Renfrew (formerly Disney professor of archaeology at the University of Cambridge) investigating sources of lead and silver in the Aegean.

“Noel’s transformation from an orthodox nuclear physicist to an archaeologist bewildered his colleagues and resulted in epic administrative problems about his duties and departmental affiliations,” recalled Richard Mayou, emeritus fellow in sociology at Nuffield.

“His persistent pursuit of what he saw as a simple rational solution resulted in what was said to be one of the thickest personnel files in the university offices.

“Relatively late in his academic life, he was elected a fellow of Nuffield College where…his many brushes with university authority meant he was always greatly entertained by anecdotes of alleged bureaucratic gaffes.”

Dr Mayou said that as “a natural dissident”, Professor Gale also became involved in opposing changes to Oxford’s governance put forward by former vice-chancellor John Hood “and spoke passionately at the meeting of Congregation that rejected the…proposals”.

Professor Gale died of cancer on 3 February and is survived by his third wife, Daphne Robertson-Hicks, three sons and five grandchildren.

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