For he’s a jolly good Fellow – KEVI old boy joins the Royal Society

Professor Bill Rutherford who has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Professor Bill Rutherford who has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

A former Morpeth schoolboy has joined the likes of Einstein, Newton and Darwin after being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Professor Alfred William Rutherford, known as Bill, has received the honour in recognition of his ground-breaking work in solar energy.

The Society is made up of some of the world’s most outstanding scientists, including Nobel Prize winners.

Prof Rutherford, 59, will formally be accepted in July when he signs the book dating back to 1660, using a quill.

He said: “Since I have spent most of my career working abroad I’m still learning just how important this is.

“There are a lot of eminent societies around the world, but this is the oldest and there are a lot of fantastic names in the book. It is a huge honour to be listed in that same book.”

Prof Rutherford is the son of former Morpeth Town Clerk Stan Rutherford. The respected solicitor died when his son was just nine, but he has been a huge inspiration.

“My dad is quite famous in Morpeth,” he said.

“He was an altruistic solicitor and whenever I go to Morpeth I still run into people who consider my dad a hero. He certainly has been a hard act to live up to.”

Prof Rutherford first showed academic prowess at the age of 12 when he was selected for the King Edward VI Grammar School team for the Bright Sparks school TV quiz show.

He said: “I was at the age when you just want to blend in and keep your head down, but we were dragged out to compete in front of the whole school. There was quite a bit of pressure, but we won the whole thing.”

It was at KEVI that Prof Rutherford met the people who were to have the biggest influence on his career.

“There was a biology teacher called Doc Brown and he was very inspirational,” he said.

“He was very important to me in that he was the kind of biologist who presented the evolutionary background. That aspect of my work came from Doc Brown from Day One.

“At school we often sat in alphabetical order so I sat next to a guy called David Saint, who is now a Professor of Biophysics at the University of Adelaide.

“He introduced me to the idea that as a school kid you could learn more than what was being taught by going to the library. I owe quite a bit to my name starting ‘Ru’.

“The other person was a chemistry teacher called Mick Dagless. His teaching was hugely exciting to me. I hated chemistry, but this guy taught me to love it and my whole career has been on the edge of chemistry and physics.”

Prof Rutherford studied Biochemistry at Liverpool and completed his PhD at University College London, where he had his first position. He then spent two years at the University of Illinois, before moving to a solar energy lab in Riken, near Tokyo.

He was the first foreigner to take a position in the Biophysics Department at the Saclay CEA (atomic energy centre) on the outskirts of Paris, and became Director of Research, Classe Exceptionnelle, one of just a handful of such positions in France.

“In a university, you tend to be in one department, but in France we had physicists, chemists, biologists and everybody there. It was a very interesting environment,” he said.

“It was very unusual to have a foreigner in a position of status, but by the time I left we had more foreigners than French. It was a huge shift, but we ended up with more diverse skills and innovative research.”

Three years ago, Prof Rutherford moved to Imperial College London as Chair of Biochemistry of Solar Energy.

He said: “I had always promised myself that I would take a job in real academia. I’m still trying to do research, but I’ve left all the fancy equipment behind.

“I was delighted recently to nominated by the students for a good teaching award. I didn’t get the prize, but I got a mug and for me that is almost as big a thrill as the Royal Society because it means that what I’m doing is good.”

Prof Rutherford still comes home to Morpeth every Christmas to visit family, only missing the year when his daughter was born, and also performs in the area with his band, Baskerville Willy.

“I get home as much as I can,” he said. “Morpeth is still my focus, and always has been.”