British Science Week: Sir John Houghton 1931-2020

As we are now well into British Science Week, we thought this was the perfect opportunity to mark the work of Sir John Theodore Houghton CBE FRS FLSW. Sir Houghton was a Welsh atmospheric physicist who contributed to the development of climate science and to the creation of international collaboration based on climate research.

He was born on 30 December 1931 in Dyserth, Denbighshire. The family moved to Rhyl when John was two, and he later attended Rhyl Grammar School, which is where he discovered his interest in science. He was so capable at physics, that he got the highest marks in Wales and won a scholarship for Oxford University aged just 16 years, and embarked upon a degree in maths and physics in 1948.

Rhyl Grammar School Magazine 1949 (NEWA Hawarden Branch)

Rhyl Grammar School, Speech Day Pamphlet 1949 (NEWA Hawarden Branch)

Graduating at the top of his year, he stayed on to do a Masters, followed by a DPhil in Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics in 1951, before spending a brief period with the Royal Aircraft establishment.

He returned to Oxford as a Lecturer in 1958 and became a Fellow in 1960. During this time he worked with a group of academics to develop instruments for space-based weather monitoring with NASA, and spent four years as director of the Appleton Laboratory. He was eventually made Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Jesus College and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Between 1982 and 1984, he was chair of the World Climate Research Programme; an international programme that he helped establish in 1980 that helps to coordinate global climate research. In 1983 he left Jesus College Oxford to become director general of the Meteorological Office where he developed a particular interest in climate change.

John Houghton described global warming as ‘a weapon of mass destruction’ and went on to have a distinguished career as one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists.

He became chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988; a position he held until 2002 and during which he was the lead editor of the first three IPCC reports. This work was a major factor in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC in 2007 which was shared with former US vice-president Al Gore. John himself was one of the team who received the prize on behalf of the IPPC.

Sir John founded the world renowned Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services where he was also an honorary scientist from 2002. He was also an honorary scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory since 1991, a trustee of the Shell Foundation from 2000 and chairman of the John Ray Initiative from 1997 until his death.

Sir John was a Fellow of the Institute Of Physics and received numerous honours and awards, including the prestigious Japan Prize (2006), the Glazebrook Medal (Institute of Physics, 1990); the Bakerian Prize Lecture of the Royal Society, 1991; the Climate Institute Annual Award (1992) and the Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal (1995), along with Honorary Doctorates of Science from the Universities of Wales (1991), Stirling (1992), East Anglia (1993), Leeds (1995), Heriot-Watt (1996), Greenwich (1997), Glamorgan (1998), Reading (1999), Birmingham (2000), Gloucestershire (2001) and Hull (2002).

As one of the principal climate scientists of his generation, he contributed significantly to the understanding of the causes and impacts of global warming, convinced many politicians about the gravity of its risk and, as a Christian, in his later years undertook to persuade American evangelist preachers that humans are able to influence the Earth’s climate.

Sir John died on 15 April 2020, aged 88, due to complications arising from Covid-19. Paying tribute to her Grandfather, Hannah Malcolm commented:-

“When I was younger, my consistent memory of him was warnings over the devastation waiting us if we didn’t act on climate change. And I remember thinking how glad I was that scientists like him were in charge. But of course it isn’t the scientists in charge”.

“There’s a sculpture of him in Rhyl alongside Don Spendlove and Mike Peters, and my sister once got him to take a picture with it”.

Copyright: Jemima Malcom

Hannah continues:-

“He faced a lifetime of lobbyists and corporations trying to undermine his work, question his motives, and distract from evidence. But my other consistent memory will be his deep faith that he was doing work in service of the God he loved, and in service of the world he loved”.

“He got to live his final years by the sea in Wales, which was perhaps the place (apart from dragging people up ‘shortcuts’ on Welsh mountains) that he loved most of all. He slowly lost a lot of memories and faculties to dementia, but the sea remained with him. A good life”

For records relating to Rhyl Grammar School, please visit our website

One Response to “British Science Week: Sir John Houghton 1931-2020”

  1. rhylhistoryclub Says:

    Reblogged this on Rhyl History Club.

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