Dr Courtenay Phillips 1924-2022

It is with great sadness that the College has learned of the death of Dr Courtenay Phillips, alumnus and Emeritus Fellow.

Courtenay Phillips was born in Newport, Monmouthshire in 1924 and educated at Haileybury College before arriving at Merton College as a Postmaster to read Chemistry in 1942. He was destined to spend almost 80 years of his adult life as a student and then Fellow of Merton, spending less than one year away from the college in that entire period to 2022. After achieving a first-class degree in Chemistry and a Half Blue in Golf, he was appointed a Fellow and Tutor of Merton in 1948 at the age of 24, and he educated many generations of chemists, both at Merton and as a University Lecturer in the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory at Oxford. He was also a Sub-Warden of the College from 1957-59 and Acting Warden in 1979-81 and 1984-85.

In his research, Courtenay made very important contributions to the development of the technique of gas chromatography – a methodology still used today for separating and analysing gas mixtures – and published the first textbook on the subject, Gas Chromatography, in 1956, as well as around 100 research papers over his career. His work was recognised by awards in the UK, the USA and the USSR, and he was a founder member of the discussion group that became The Chromatographic Society.

His two-volume book written with RJP Williams and published in 1965, Inorganic Chemistry, was a classic textbook of its day, conveying a depth of understanding of the subject matter, illustrated with graphical data, that went well beyond the mere cataloguing of chemical reactions and periodic trends that typified textbooks at the time.

Courtenay was exceptionally dedicated to his teaching, and to Merton College. He cared passionately about supporting his tutees to achieve their best, he always wanted to convey the interest and importance of Chemistry as a discipline, and he expected nothing short of excellence. His breadth and depth of knowledge – both Chemistry and general knowledge - was extraordinary. Following his retirement in 1992, having given tutorials and classes for 43 years, Courtenay continued to give revision classes to Merton Chemists, especially in the lead-up to their finals, for several years. His record as the longest-serving Chemistry Tutor in Merton’s history is unlikely to be surpassed.

Outside of Oxford, Courtenay acted as an advisor to British and US government bodies on security and matters relating to the Middle East, he helped to set up the first university in the Sultanate of Oman, and was an advisor to chemical industries in the UK and overseas. In his retirement he dedicated time to the development of Frilford Golf Club in Oxfordshire.

Above all, Courtenay was a loyal Mertonian, through and through, whose contributions to the College were immense over many decades, and he will be remembered with great fondness and admiration by those who were able to enjoy his company in that period.

Professor Tim Softley
Emeritus Fellow