Fowler, Sir Ralph Howard

(1889-1944), mathematical physicist and weapons researcher

by E. A. Milne, rev. Alan Yoshioka

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Fowler, Sir Ralph Howard (1889-1944), mathematical physicist and weapons researcher, was born at Fedsden, Roydon, Essex, on 17 January 1889, the elder son of Howard Fowler, of Glebelands, Burnham, Somerset, and his wife, Frances Eva, daughter of George Dewhurst, cotton merchant, of Manchester. Like his father, who had represented England at rugby, Fowler demonstrated wide-ranging athletic ability. His sister Dorothy played golf for England in 1921-8. His younger brother was killed on the Somme.

Fowler was educated at home by a governess, then at a preparatory school at Horris Hill. He was elected in 1902 to a scholarship at Winchester College, of which he was to become a member of staff before the First World War, and a fellow in 1933. During this period his family moved from Essex to Norfolk. From Winchester he won an entrance scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained a first class in part one of the mathematical tripos in 1909, and became a wrangler in part two in 1911 with special credit in schedule B. He was awarded a Rayleigh prize for mathematics in 1913, and the Adams prize in 1924. He represented Cambridge at golf in 1912.

After taking his degree Fowler began research in pure mathematics, at which he was exhaustive rather than brilliant. His work on the behaviour of solutions of second-order differential equations led to his election into a prize fellowship at Trinity in 1914. During the war, however, Fowler turned his attention to applied mathematics and theoretical physics, which gave him full scope both for his true mathematical powers and for his strong practical inclinations. On the outbreak of war Fowler obtained a commission in the Royal Marines; he was severely wounded in the Gallipoli campaign. While convalescing in England he began a notable collaboration with Archibald Vivian Hill, the first great influence in his career. With him at Whale Island, Portsmouth, Fowler organized the anti-aircraft experimental section of the munitions inventions department of the Ministry of Munitions. Later he became its assistant director, was promoted captain, and appointed OBE in 1918. Some of his joint researches with other members of the section in anti-aircraft gunnery afterwards became classics in ballistics. An account entitled 'The aerodynamics of a spinning shell' (PTRS 221 A, 1920-21 and 222, 1921-22) had a considerable influence on naval gunnery in the Second World War.

In 1919 Fowler returned to Cambridge. In 1920 he was appointed lecturer in mathematics at Trinity, and came under the second great influence in his life, Sir Ernest Rutherford, whose daughter, Eileen Mary, he married in 1921. She died in 1930, leaving two daughters and two sons, the elder of whom was Peter Howard Fowler, himself a distinguished physicist. The Fowler family lived at Trumpington, and Fowler also had a country house at Ashmore, Wiltshire, in his beloved west country. Fowler became a prolific researcher in the domains of statistical mechanics and atomic physics. His early collaboration with Charles Galton Darwin resulted in the publication of his Adams prize essay as the exhaustively detailed book Statistical Mechanics (1929). He was elected FRS in 1925 and was awarded a royal medal by the society in 1936. He delivered the Bakerian lecture in 1935. He was elected first Plummer professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge in 1932. In 1938 he was appointed director of the National Physical Laboratory, but a heart attack prevented his taking up the appointment and he retained the Plummer chair.

Before the outbreak of war in 1939 Fowler became involved with an Admiralty committee to consider the influence that air power might have on the navy. He was soon sent to Canada to co-ordinate war research there with war research in Britain; he later extended these activities to the United States, and was instrumental in establishing what became the British central scientific office in Washington, DC. For the success of this mission he was knighted in 1942. In spite of failing health he became a member of the Admiralty scientific advisory board, and chaired powerful Admiralty committees. With E. A. Milne he compared the destructive power of armour-piercing and high-explosive projectiles.

Fowler, a man of great personal charm, was remembered by contemporaries as a mathematical physicist of amazing quickness and versatility of mind. His most original work was his paper 'On dense matter' (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 87, 1926, 114), wherein he characterized white dwarf stars in terms of quantum statistics. Astronomical interests prompted his work on Emden's differential equation (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 91, 1931). However, he was at his best as a collaborator, and was renowned for critical insight and infectious enthusiasm. Fowler finally succumbed to his heart condition and died on 28 July 1944 at his home, Cromwell House, Trumpington; he was cremated in Cambridge on 2 August of that year.


E. A. Milne, Obits. FRS, 5 (1945-8), 61-78
C. G. Darwin, Cambridge Review (14 Oct 1944), 6-8
The Times (29 July 1944)
The Times (3 Aug 1944)
The Times (5 Aug 1944)
The Times (17 Aug 1944)
The Times (12 Sept 1944)
E. A. Milne, Nature, 154 (1944), 232-3
S. Zuckerman, From apes to warlords (1978)
CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1945)

CAC Cam., corresp. with A. V. Hill
CUL, corresp. with Francis John Worsley Roughton
IWM, corresp. with Tizard and others, with memorandum

W. Stoneman, photograph, 1943, NPG [see illus.]
photograph, repro. in Obits. FRS, 61

Wealth at death  
£15,507 1s. 2d.: probate, 2 Jan 1945, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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