Sir Martin Wood with his wife, Audrey Wood
Credit: Gabriel Hemery

Obituary: Sir Martin Wood FRS

Sir Martin Wood FRS (1927-2021)

Professor Steve Blundell, Professor Robert Taylor and Professor Ian Shipsey pay tribute to the extraordinary Sir Martin Wood FRS who died on 23 November 2021.

Sir Martin Wood joined Oxford Physics in 1955 as a Senior Research Officer, working with Professor Nicholas Kurti. Martin's work on resistive high-field magnets in Kurti’s research group led to other universities wanting access to the technology. In response, in 1959 Martin and his wife Audrey founded Oxford University’s first substantial spin-out company, Oxford Instruments.

Following the development of niobium-alloy-based superconductors in the US, just two year’s after Oxford Instruments was founded, Martin successfully constructed the first superconducting magnets outside the US and, as the company grew, Oxford Instruments began to sell these magnets for various physics research applications.

Superconducting magnets were then used for nuclear magnetic resonance studies in chemistry and biology and this work led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners – the first commercial MRI whole body scanner was produced at Oxford Instruments’ factory at Osney Mead. The company had originally operated out of Martin's garden shed in Northmoor Road, but rapidly grew and is now a FTSE 250 company with an annual revenue of over £300M.

Oxford Instruments has produced superconducting magnets for use in the world’s largest particle accelerators and a visit to the laboratories in any modern university physics department will reveal numerous Oxford Instruments magnets and cryostats. Oxford Instruments became, and remains, one of the world’s leading technology companies, developing instruments with applications in areas including medicine, cryogenics, and spectroscopy. It has nucleated many other high-tech firms in Oxfordshire, making the region around Oxford the world’s leading centre for industries using cryogenic and superconducting technologies, and this extraordinary concentration of scientific excellence derives ultimately from Martin’s singular talent for technological innovation and business leadership.  

Martin was knighted in 1986 for his services to science and received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. In addition, both Sir Martin and Lady Audrey have been generous in their many philanthropic endeavours. Oxford Physics has benefitted enormously from their donation of funds to build the Sir Martin Wood Lecture Theatre and surrounding rooms, including a seminar room named in Audrey’s honour; they also made a substantial donation to the Department of Physics' new Beecroft Building. The annual Sir Martin Wood Prize, founded in 1998, fosters UK-Japan links and is awarded each year to an outstanding young Japanese scientist who receives the opportunity to lecture in UK universities, including at Oxford Physics, and Sir Martin has taken great pleasure in meeting each year's prize winner.