October 10, 2013, by Malvika Johal

Playing with fire!

Over the last 100 years there have been iconic people, places and events associated with The University of Nottingham. Alumni remember them all and many stories about them have been featured in Alumni Exchange Magazine. For the first time the Remembering Nottingham Blog will reproduce some of these articles. Feel free to add your own memories or take the stories a stage further. Our information is only as good your lovely memories.

As a student I never found my lectures to be dramatic, inspirational or literally explosive, but then I’d never been to one of B.D’s demonstrations… until now.

His lectures successfully and potently mixed the elements of learning and fear and it was well not to sit too near the front. University College, Nottingham and the modern University of Nottingham has attracted more than its fair share of so called ‘larger than life’ figures, but few have fitted the description more accurately than former senior chemistry lecturer B.D. Shaw.

Rarely has one man – or one life – been so widely and universally respected and with such deep seated affection. His 100th birthday celebrations, which brought together more than 400 friends were an outpouring of admiration and friendship.

A highly decorated soldier, daring escapee and forensic expert, he is perhaps best known for his knowledge of explosive and the unique and often hilarious way in which he spiced up his chemistry lectures to keep students interested. He was the architect of the Explosives Lecture which gained such a reputation that the BBC used it as the subject of their Horizon programmes broadcast in 1969.

It was around 1930 that the then Nottingham Professor of Chemistry Professor Frederic Kipping approached Shaw to do something about the fact that the Chemical and Physical Society lectures lacked sufficient excitement. The Shaw demonstration lecture was born, comprising controlled explosions, fireworks and musket firing, in an effort to instill the importance of chemistry in the very stuff of life.

From then until 1990 he gave the lecture more than 1,600 times at venues ranging from universities, industry and the Royal Institution, to fire stations and village halls from Nottingham to Rome and California.

It was a combination of academic knowledge coupled with military expertise which earned Shaw his international fame. Many former students will be acquainted with Shaw’s academic life but fewer will be aware of the other side of this fascinating man.

Born in Ilkeston in 1898, he began his career in 1915 as an apprentice pharmacist at Boots the Chemist and joined the University College, Nottingham Officers’ Training Corps at the same time. During World War One he was a sniper and fought at the Somme as well as at Cambrai in 1917 and at Passchendale. In July 1917 at Beauchamp, he was awarded the military medal for bravery for rescuing a wounded soldier from no-man’s land.

After the war he returned to student life at University College, Nottingham and graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in 1922. Following a brief time away he returned to get his doctorate and became a staff member of the University’s department of Chemistry until his retirement in 1965.

In the inter-war years Shaw commanded a company of the 5th Sherwood Foresters Territorial Army and was later promoted to Captain and Major, but his own personal war effort was far from over. In the Second World War he commanded the 1/5 Battalion Sherwood Foresters and was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in France. Unfortunately he was among those left behind after Dunkirk and spent months in hiding before being captured near Poitiers and was imprisoned in five prisoner of war camps before being liberated by US troops.

From 1925-1955 Colonel Shaw’s marksmanship won him many prizes at competitive shooting events, including the coveted King’s medal for the Champion Shot in the Territorial Army. After the Second World War he also commanded the University Training Corps until 1954.

His knowledge of explosives and firearms was so widely recognised that he acted as expert scientific witness in many notorious legal cases, including the trial of the Angry Brigade at the Old Bailey in 1972. The brigade, as they were known, was a group of students who tried to bomb political targets. Eight of them were tried and four eventually served prison sentences. As an explosives expert, Shaw gave evidence for the defence.

Shaw was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science from the University in 1979 and also received a unique award from the Royal Society of Chemistry for his work in promoting the popularity of the subject. Though his Boys Own Story life might read like a work of fiction it is tribute to the man that that he has packed so much into this life so far. He served his subject, his department and the University with distinction and continues to be an inspiration. But more than that, he has laced his chemistry with an entertaining degree of calculated danger and mischievous humour. And, as the letter on this page shows, he left his mark wherever he went! Long may he continue to do so.

Dr Harold Booth (former senior lecturer in Chemistry and close friend of B.D. Shaw, writes:

In 1996 the Chemistry Department archives benefited from the late Dr Frank Palmer’s donation of a number of documents. Amongst the letters was one from professor Alex Pines of the Department of Chemistry, University of Berkley California. The letter was written following a very successful trip to Berkley by B.D. Shaw and Frank Palmer, when the ‘exploded’ three times in front of large audiences, one of which included two Nobel Prize winners, the Bay Area Police Department and the San Francisco Bomb Squad. For your delight here is an extract from this letter.

“Dear B.D. and Frank,

It’s been a few days since you left and the corridors of Berkley still resound with the memory of your visit. After your lecture it was difficult to return to the normal routine of chemistry teaching – pH and titrations are not amongst the most thrilling of topics. I was tempted to follow your advice, Colonel and blow up a pH meter. Repairs on the walls of our building are now well under way and a small plaque with your names is being placed near the hole in the ceiling. I understand from the Oakland Psychiatric Ward that our photographer is expected to recover fully.”


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