Anthony Kelly was born in Hillingdon, Middlesex on 25 January 1929. After obtaining firsts in both general and special physics at the University of Reading (1949 and 1950) and a PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge (1953), he began his academic career as research associate at the University of Illinois (1953-55) and ICI fellow at the University of Birmingham (1955). After three years as an assistant and then associate professor of metallurgy and materials science at Northwestern University, Chicago (1956-59), he returned to Cambridge as a university lecturer and founding fellow of Churchill College (1959-67).
This was followed by a period outside the academy, when Professor Kelly took on a number of managerial roles within government science, before moving to Surrey as vice-chancellor and chief executive from 1975 to 1994. This represented a time of notable expansion: student numbers increased from 3,000 to 7,000 and annual income rose from £6 million to £63 million. But it was also a time of considerable financial pressure, with Surrey suffering particularly badly in the notorious University Grants Committee cuts of 1981.
Never one for half measures, Professor Kelly responded with great determination, closing a number of departments, introducing a range of new subjects (such as the then controversial dance studies) and building up income from other sources. At an event to mark his retirement from Surrey in 1994, he was praised by Graeme Davies (then chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England) for having had “the vision to set about one of the most difficult tasks in higher education – to change irreversibly the culture of an institution. I believe that during the 30 years since the Robbins report, only two of the former colleges of advanced technology have made it into the top grouping of our best international research universities: Surrey and Bath.”
Sometimes known as “the father of composite materials”, Professor Kelly, who was appointed CBE in 1988, was a highly distinguished scientist. His book Strong Solids (1965; third edition: 1986) is still regarded as a seminal work. What makes him unusual was that he continued to make a significant contribution both during and after his tenure as vice-chancellor. After leaving Surrey, he was welcomed back to Cambridge as emeritus professor and distinguished research fellow in the department of materials science and technology.
Anthony Kelly died peacefully on 4 June and is survived by his four children, Marie-Clare, Paul, Andrew and Steve.