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Professor Michael Baker and his wife Gabrielle Perfect

Professor John Michael Baker 1930-2017

August 2017

All Physics alumni will be sad to learn of the death on Thursday 10 August of Michael Baker, Merton’s first ever Physics Tutor, aged 86. Michael joined the College as Tutor in 1957, when he was 26. Michael was Merton's only Physics Tutor until Michael Bowler joined him a decade later. In this period he converted Tony Leggett from a Balliol-educated Greats Man into our only winner of the Physics Nobel Prize.

Michael was thoughtful, kind, patient and a good physicist. He never shirked a duty. Within the College he filled the roles of Tutor for Admissions (1966-8), Sub-Warden (1978-80) and Senior Tutor (1986-7), and within the Physics Department he was Head of the Sub-Department of Condensed Matter Physics (1993-7). To all of these roles he brought calm efficiency, friendly interest in students and colleagues, and a sharp eye for unusual gifts in young people.

Michael's research was for many years funded by De Beers, the diamond company. It involved understanding the electronic structure of diamond, a very remarkable material. Diamonds get their colour from imperfections in the crystal lattice, and Michael's group classified these imperfections and figured out how they colour diamonds. Michael continued to follow closely the work of his group after he retired in 1998.

About five years ago he had to give up cycling, but even after his health had become quite poor he continued to come into Merton regularly for lunch, and until a few weeks ago one regularly saw Michael shuffling determinedly back up Parks Road with his walking frame. He always declined help with stairs, preferring to go slowly on his own. This was authentic Michael Baker: fiercely independent and very unwilling to be a burden on anybody. Even as his body let him down, his mind remained sharp and his interest in the world lively. It is good to know that death came for him quickly: he was in Sobell House for only a very few days.

Merton is held in high regard in the Physics Department, and Michael's near-lifetime of service to the College is the principal reason why. We owe him much and mourn him deeply.


Professor Baker’s funeral will take place at 2:00pm on Monday 11 September in the College Chapel, followed by tea in Hall. All are welcome to attend. Parking will be available at the College Sports Ground behind St Catherine’s College (OX1 3UQ). A Memorial Service will be held next year.