Professor Mansel Davies, msc,
professor of chemistry, ucw aberystwyth
Mansel Morris Davies was a distinguished physical chemist with an international reputation. His expertise extended well beyond his specialist area of chemistry into other areas of science such as its history and philosophy, and further into religion and the study of other cultures. Politically a ‘free thinker’, he was strongly committed to movements which campaigned for social and political justice, was a Pugwash participant, and a founder member of CND Wales. He was an author of seminal works within his own subject, and, in retirement after the age of 75, completed an additional three books of a non-specialist scientific nature. He was always a man of vitality and great enthusiasm; his life encompassed music, literature, conversation and the friendship of colleagues throughout the world. He was very much an individual who never hesitated from speaking his mind, often forcefully and with a sharp turn of phrase, which sometimes led to disagreements; but there were many who admired his courage for so doing. Nevertheless to those who knew him well he had a magnetic personality, and was a kind, gentle man with genuine warmth.
Mansel was born in Aberdare in 1913. He was the youngest of the three sons of Thomas Morris Davies and his wife Caroline (née Thomas). The Welsh speaking family lived at Glan-y-Nant House, 12 Glannant St in Foundry Town, but at around the age of five, Mansel moved with his family to ‘Cefn Bryn’ a smart house towards the top, and on the left, of Abernant Rd. Mansel’s father attended Bangor Normal College (1891–93) and was an educationalist throughout the whole of his career. He occupied the post of Headmaster at Abernant Primary School for many years. He died in 1951.
The middle brother, Merfyn Walter Davies (ABCS 1918–22) became a priest in the Anglican Church, initially at Cwmdu, now in Powys. His eldest brother, David Herbert Davies, (ABCS 1915–20), attended Bangor Normal College 1921–23, and became a teacher at St Fagan’s, then Park School, and finally Headmaster at Cwmdare until his retirement.
The boys attended the Town Council School (now Caradog) in Clifton Street. Mansel arrived at The County School, as it was then called, in September 1924. His recollections of school can be found in the 75th Anniversary Booklet in the History Section of this website. He passed his School Certificate in 1928 with five of his subjects gaining distinctions, giving him ‘Matriculation Equivalence’. Then, in 1930, he gained a State Scholarship having passed his ‘Highers’ with distinctions in both Chemistry and Physics. He was also awarded an entrance scholarship by the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth where he went up to read Chemistry. He subsequently graduated with first class honours (1933), and continued further for his MSc(1935). He then moved to Cambridge on a University of Wales Fellowship and later became a research student in the field of infra-red spectroscopy. He was awarded a PhD for this work in 1938, and stayed there for post doctoral work for a further two years. Later in his professional career the same university awarded Mansel the degree of ScD.
Being a committed pacifist and conscientious objector, he refused to do war work. So, in 1940 he started as teacher of Physics and Chemistry at Bethesda County School, (now called Ysgol Dyffryn Ogwen), North Wales. However, whilst there he met his future wife, Miss Rhiannon Williams from Wallasey, a former student of Aberystwyth, who was a French teacher at the same school. By 1942, they had married. Rhiannon was not only a linguist but also a poet and accomplished harpist. During his years at Bethesda, Mansel began his studies of the hydrogen bond, a weak linkage between mainly oxygen and hydrogen atoms in adjacent molecules which is responsible for crucial attractive forces between important biologically active molecules, but also present in water itself; indeed accounting for water being a liquid rather than a gas at room temperature, unlike most other molecules that consist of just three atoms, which are gaseous. Later in 1946, Mansel published a review of his work on the hydrogen bond that became essential reading for chemists and biologists worldwide.
In 1942 Mansel left Bethesda for the University of Leeds where he became a Research Assistant. Here he became involved in X-ray diffraction studies and, like Rosalind Franklin, obtained diffraction patterns of DNA, which were consulted by Watson and Crick. Mansel remained at Leeds until 1947 and became an ICI Fellow for the final year.
In 1947, he made his move to the ‘College by the Sea’ — the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. He remained there for the rest of his career moving from lecturer, to senior lecturer, Reader (1961), and finally to a Personal Chair in 1968 — the first person to be honoured in this way in the history of Aberystwyth. He retired in 1978 after thirty-one years in the department which was housed in the Edward Davies Chemical Laboratories.
Virtually all of his research work at Aberystwyth concerned the behaviour of small molecules: the forces between them, their vibration and rotation. He continued to use the technique of infra-red spectroscopy for this purpose, but also collaborated with The National Physical Laboratory and industrial manufacturers of these instruments to improve the technique. He was also involved in the development of Fourier Transform techniques as well as pushing the investigations beyond the traditional bands of the infra-red spectrum. At the same time, he began to develop the technique called dielectric spectroscopy, which had interested him during a visit to Princeton University. This was another powerful technique for probing molecular behaviour. For his contribution to the advancement of knowledge and understanding in these fields Mansel was awarded two honorary doctorates one from the University of Nancy (1974) and another from Wroclaw (1979). During this period, he was frequently invited to contribute at conferences, to deliver lecture series and to join research institutions, mainly abroad.
Mansel published the results of his research in the standard academic journals, but he also authored several books details of which can be seen by clicking here. A few pages, including the contents pages of his first book, written for the ‘Thinkers Library’ and published in 1947, called An Outline of the Development of Science can be seen here. It is interesting to note that this book resulted from an approach to Mansel by H.G Wells , and says much about Mansel’s reputation in the early post-war period. A year later a revised edition of the book appeared in Welsh, written by Mansel and Rhiannon, and published by The University of Wales Press. It represented a first, and only, publication of a book on the philosophy and development of science in the Welsh language at that time.
During their Aberystwyth days, Mansel and Rhiannon brought up their two boys Huw and Rhodri. Huw was, until his retirement in 2008, Principal Percussionist of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Rhodri is currently, (2009), SFI Stokes Professor of Immunology, at the Regenerative Medicine Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway.
Following his retirement in 1978, Mansel spent much of his time at the Criccieth house where he continued to participate energetically in a range of activities. He developed his interest in oriental religions, and in the science and technology of ancient China, working with his close friend Joseph Needham. It was during this period that he wrote a further three books, alluded to earlier. He also supported the Llangollen International Eisteddfod which combined his love of music with his commitment to fostering close international relationships.
Rhiannon died in 1988 after a long illness. Mansel lived for another seven years, and on 11 January 1995 he died in Criccieth. Mansel characteristically left his body to science, and consequently he was not at his funeral, which he conducted himself from a prerecorded tape that he had prepared. It was a humanist ceremony with readings and music by his favourite writers and composers. In his will, he bequeathed a pair of paintings depicting a group of miners to the NLW, and made a bequest for the purchase of trees and plants for Aberdare Park. You will also find this inscription on his parents’ grave (V192, Old Cemetery, Aberdare): “Hefyd mewn cof am Mansel Morris Davies”.
Mansel never forgot his upbringing in Aberdare; in the 1950s he regularly met up on Boxing Days with old boys Handel Davies, the aero engineer, and Walter Morgan the NLW archivist, at Handel’s Llwydcoed home. Mansel returned to the school, then located in Trecynon, in April 1961 when he was the guest speaker at the school’s annual speech day at the Coliseum. The programme for this event can be seen in the Certificate Ceremonies section of this web site.
This appreciation of the life and career of Mansel Davies is based upon the obituary written by Professor Sir John Meurig Thomas, and an article written by Professor Graham Williams for the Institute of Physics. Many thanks also to Mansel’s colleague Dr Alun H. Price for sight of the obituary he wrote for Aber Newyddion/News, February 1995; to Mansel’s nephew, Dr Alun C. Davies (ABGS 1948–56) for comments about the early days in Aberdare; and Mansel’s sons Huw and Rhodri for their co-operation and for family photographs for this online tribute.