Sir Martin Wood's Life | 1927 - 2021

Martin Wood was born in 1927 and studied engineering at Cambridge University. At the time of his graduation, the UK had a shortage of energy and a shortage of manpower. To overcome the energy crisis the UK government enlisted young men, so called “Bevin Boys” to work as coal miners. Martin spent several years doing this tough job, 6 days a week mainly underground in the mine, but the job gave him excellent training in ingenious ways of solving engineering problems.

Martin then joined the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University where he oversaw manufacturing and maintaining the research equipment in the laboratory. The equipment included water-cooled Bitter magnets and small cryostats, Martin often mentioned that the head of the lab Prof Nicholas Kurti was a tremendous mentor for him.

When researchers from around the world visited the Clarendon Laboratory, they often asked Martin to manufacture similar equipment for their own labs. He cooperated as much as he could but realized that such work would be better done by a private company rather than the University. In 1959, Martin and his wife Audrey cleared out their garden shed, put in some tools and equipment, and founded Oxford Instruments. Martin recruited a technician who had recently retired from the University to manufacture components and ship them to customers. Gradually the business grew by pioneering manufacture of superconducting magnets and cryostats for research and the company expanded internationally.

Martin had a flair for forming trusting personal relationships with inventive people who shared their ideas with him. He also had a knack for seeing an opportunity and enrolling talented people to pursue it. Key examples of this were Martin’s connections with two UK leading scientists, Professor Rex Richards and Professor Peter Mansfield whose breakthroughs helped propel Oxford Instruments into the fast-growing market for high resolution NMR magnets and MRI magnets in the 1970’s and 1980’s

Martin’s first visit to Japan was in 1969 when he and Audrey, and their 4 children, travelled from the UK overland on the trans-Siberian express which took 7 days to reach Vladivostok. From there they took a ferry onto Japan. Martin met customers at the Institute for Solid State Physics, at that time located in Roppongi, Tokyo. One of the Professor’s introduced Martin to the International House of Japan. Martin became a lifetime member and always stayed there when he came to Japan. He took great delight in inviting customers to International House for dinner and comparing the beautiful garden there with his garden in Oxfordshire. International House is a very good venue to enjoy dinner on a special occasion, or just for a coffee. If you visit it is easy to understand why Martin enjoyed staying there.

Martin was a founding member of the International Cryogenics Engineering Conference ICEC, first held in 1966 and he remained on the advisory committee for the rest of his life. The last ICEC he attended was in Fukuoka in 2012 where he gave a 40-minute keynote talk to over 250 delegates.

Martin had tremendous admiration for the precision engineering and innovation of Japanese scientists. One of the scientists he met on his first visit was Professor Kanda, the head of the Cryogenic Society of Japan. Prof Kanda developed sintered silver heat exchangers that enabled 3He/4He dilution refrigerator to achieve temperatures of less than 10 mK. Martin took this idea back to the UK and implemented it into Oxford Instruments products.

Martin always made Japanese scientists visiting the UK feel welcome. He often invited them to his house, introduced them to people who could help them professionally and personally. In many cases they became lifelong friends. Prof Noboru Miura and Prof Haruhiko Suzuki lived in the UK for over 2 years in the 1970’s and they remember the warm welcome Martin and Audrey gave them to help their families settle in the UK.

In the 1980’s The Crown Prince of Japan (now Emperor) studied at Oxford University and wrote a thesis “A Study of Navigation and Traffic on the Upper Thames in the 18th Century”.

Martin lived very close to the river Thames. One day he was walking by the river and saw a young man making sketches and taking notes. Martin started talking to him and asked where he came from. The man replied that he was from Tokyo. Martin explained that he often stayed at International House and asked whether he lived near there. The man, who was the Crown Prince, modestly replied “Yes, quite close, in fact my father lives in the Imperial Palace !”

Martin and the Crown Prince became good friends, and Martin mentored him during his stay at the University and often visited the Crown Prince when he came to Japan.

Martin often said that he was impressed by the modesty of Japanese people, an example of another encounter was when he and people from around the world were invited to the opening ceremony for a new Engineering Laboratory at a UK University

Martin met a man there and asked him what his engineering expertise was. The man replied that his expertise was in cars and engines. Martin then asked him which cars are the best. The man replied: “Cars with my name on are very good, here is my business card”. The business card read “Soichiro Honda, Founder and Chairman, Honda Motor Co.” ! Martin also kept in contact with Mr. Honda for many years.

In 1998 after almost 4 decades Martin retired from the board of Oxford Instruments, but he was eager to continue his involvement with the business, particularly in Japan. When we approached him with the idea of establishing the “Sir Martin Wood Prize” to encourage young scientists to increase collaboration between Japan and the UK, he immediately agreed to it.

Martin travelled to Japan every year to present the prize in person, he was disappointed when his age made it difficult for him to travel, however he took great delight in welcoming the prize winners to his home and warmly greeted them and quizzed them about their research and life in Japan. His greatest joy was showing guests around his garden and describing the natural plants and delicious vegetables grown there.

Martin’s role in nurturing many ties between researchers in the UK and Japan was recognized by the Japanese government in 2008 when he was awarded the “Order of the Rising Sun”(旭日中綬章)at a ceremony in London hosted by the Japanese Ambassador to the UK. Martin was particularly proud of this award as only a few non-Japanese people receive the award each year and it is rare for it to be given to someone in the science community.

In addition to Oxford Instruments Martin also established several charities and founded and invested in many other companies. He always started each new venture with huge enthusiasm and a passion that encouraged other people to join. Martin also realised that not everything could be successful, so if a business or organisation did not grow as expected, he would learn the lesson of why it did not work and move onto something new with renewed vigour.