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Collection Level Description: Correspondence and papers of Herbert Marcus Powell

Reference: NCUACS 58.1.96 A.1-G.30
Title: Correspondence and papers of Herbert Marcus Powell
Dates of Creation: 1921-1991
Extent: 227 files
Language of Material: English

Administrative/Biographical History

Herbert Marcus ('Tiny') Powell was born in 1906. He was educated at Henry VIII School, Coventry, and won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford, where he took a first in Chemistry in 1928. Powell made his whole career at Oxford University where he pioneered x-ray crystallography. Dorothy Hodgkin (Nobel Laureate Chemistry, 1964) was his first research student. He went on to become first University Demonstrator and then, in 1944, Reader in Chemical Crystallography and Head of the Chemical Crystallography Laboratory. He was given a Personal Chair in 1963. Powell became a Professorial Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford in 1963. He retired from his Chair in 1974.

Powell's research field was the determination of crystal structures by x-ray diffraction methods, especially structures with applications to chemical problems, such as the stereochemistry of the elements, metal-metal bonding, the nature of intermolecular compounds and some aspects of optical activity. He also originated and named a new class of molecular compounds (clathrates) in which one atom or molecule is enclosed in a cage formed by others. Hence he was able to prepare stable molecular compounds of inert gas elements and devise the method of separating mirror image molecules by trapping them in left or right handed molecular cavities.

Powell was an excellent linguist with particular accomplishments in Russian and Chinese. In 1960 he published a paper on how to read Japanese chemical papers without having to learn the language, which aroused great interest amongst Western chemists. He also addressed questions of language representation, seeking to represent linguistic communication by a system of visual symbols. Amongst Powell's interests was writing short stories and other fiction.

Powell's scientific achievements were recognised by his election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1953. He died in 1991.

Scope and Content

Section A, Biographical, includes obituaries, curricula vitae, and Powell's autobiographical drafts, principally relating to his family background, school and university education. Also included here are examples of his short stories and other fiction.

Section B, Oxford, documents Powell's own education at Oxford University, the Laboratory of Chemical Crystallography, which Powell headed from 1944, and his university teaching. There are Powell's undergraduate notebooks and his notes on the lectures of F. Soddy, C.N. Hinshelwood, J.W.J. Taylor and D.L. Chapman, 1925-1926. Chemical crystallography material is not extensive, but includes a small number of papers from or relating to Dorothy Hodgkin, and Powell's historical notes on the development of chemical crystallography at Oxford. Powell's lecture notes were found in considerable disorder but cover an extended period from 1928, and such topics as crystal chemistry and molecular compounds.

Section C, Research, is of interest for its presentation of laboratory notebooks covering the early part of Powell's research career from 1928 to about 1940. Included here is a notebook with lecture notes made during a visit by Powell to the Mineralogy Institute of the University of Leipzig in 1930. There are also later notes and drafts of 1950s work on inert gases, tri-o-thymotide, etc.

Section D, Lectures, publications, film, is the largest in the collection. It includes drafts of some of Powell's invitation and publication lectures, 1953-1968, and of his scientific papers, 1942-1966. Included here are drafts and correspondence relating to his 1960 paper on Japanese chemical writing and his 1966 spoof paper on colour in chemistry. There are also biographical accounts of colleagues in crystallography and chemistry, including early recollections of Dorothy Hodgkin at Oxford, and drafts for texts by Powell of a general or popular scientific nature. A film on crystal structure made by the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) Film Unit in collaboration with Powell is documented by scripts, drafts, and correspondence.

Section E, Visits and conferences, covers the period 1948-1974. Particularly well documented is his 1962 visit to China as a member of a Royal Society delegation to the Academia Sinica, Peking. There are also papers relating to visits to Roumania in 1964 and Russia in 1966 and 1969. Also included is a little documentation relating to Powell's retirement symposium held in Oxford in 1974.

Section F, Language, documents Powell's linguistic interests. His work on language representation is particularly well documented by notes and drafts. There are also drafts for a course on learning Russian prepared with the scientific student in mind.

Section G, Scientific correspondence, is not extensive. There is an alphabetical sequence of principal correspondents including scientific colleagues such as W. Baker, F.G. Mann and R.S. Nyholm and industrial concerns interested in the applications of Powell's work such as the British Oxygen Company, Imperial Chemical Industries and Johnson, Matthey & Company. Correspondence with the Ministry of Supply relates to research during the Second World War. There is a chronological sequence of shorter correspondence, 1935-1979.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were received in 1992 from Mrs Primrose Powell, widow, through the good offices of Dr C.K. Prout, Chemical Crystallography Laboratory, Oxford.

Access Conditions

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Finding Aids

A fuller description and detailed index are available in the Library and at The National Archives.

Access Points


X-ray crystallography

Chemical crystallography

Powell | Herbert Marcus | 1906-1991 | Chemist

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