March 12, 2015, by Genelva Meikle
Lieutenant Colonel Brian Shaw – never forgotten
He is probably one of the most famous alumni and academics ever to teach students at The University of Nottingham. Some may not recognise his name but everyone knows about the explosions, the smell and the noise. Being lectured by Chemistry Professor Lieutenant Colonel Brian Duncan Shaw was a lively affair.
A crack marksman, a highly decorated soldier, prisoner-of-war and forensic expert, few have packed into a life that which Brian Shaw (Chemistry 1922) managed in the 101 years to his death in 1999.
His world-famous explosives lecture involved a modest but nonetheless powerful recreation of the Krakatoa eruption of 1883. Another saw him fire a tallow candle from a Crimean War musket, the resulting force sending the candle through several thicknesses of plywood. Exploding treacle tin lids, the laboratory recreation of thunder and lightning – this was chemistry as few students had seen it before, delivered with a liberal dash of wry humour.
He often prefaced the lecture by saying that it involved dangerous experiments but that since millions of people died in car accidents each year and no-one had yet died in his lecture, his audience was statistically safer with him than they were on their journey home.
Professor Martyn Poliakoff recounts the story that such was Shaw’s love of explosives, the bomb squad had to be called after he died to remove items from his house and make the property safe.
In 2012 the Beeston and District Civic Society mounted a blue plaque on that same house in Queen’s Road, Beeston, which you can see here on the School of Chemistry’s Periodic Table of Videos.
Now, Ilkeston and District Local History Society have commemorated Shaw with their own plaque on the house in Ilkeston where he was born.
The explosives lecture was born out of a need, identified around 1930, by Professor Frederick Kipping who was looking for more exciting chemistry lectures at University College, Nottingham.
Shaw gave his famous lecture around 1,600 times at all kinds of venues all over the world up until 1990. It is still given today at the University’s annual May Fest celebrations and it continues to delight sell-out audiences.
More than 400 people attended Shaw’s 100th birthday celebrations at the Universiy after an academic career that spanned more than 40 years. Ten years earlier the University launched the BD Shaw Medal to honour the contribution he had made in popularising science and chemistry. He was an honorary graduate of the University and in 1985 won a unique award from the Royal Society of Chemistry to mark his contribution.
Outside of the University Shaw’s life was the stuff of the Boy’s Own Paper. During World War One he was a designated marksman who fought at Passchendaele, Cambrai and the Somme receiving a Military Medal for bravery in rescuing a wounded soldier.
A battalion commander in World War Two he went into hiding for four months after being left behind at Dunkirk before being captured as he tried to escape to Spain. He was a prisoner for the duration of the war at five different prison camps and on his release and return to Nottingham he remained on the University staff until 1965, remaining Officer Commanding the University Officer Training Corps until 1954.
His knowledge of explosives and firearms was widely recognised and also allowed Shaw to act as an expert scientific witness in many notorious legal cases.
Fifteen years after his death it is comforting to know that through the efforts of the University, local historians and through the continuing active demonstration of his skills at May Fest, Brian Shaw will never be forgotten.