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Ian Cowie

Scientist.

Born: May 31, 1933; Died: March 18, 2014

Professor John McKenzie Grant Cowie, known as Ian, who has died aged 81, was a prominent polymer scientist, well respected in the UK and abroad, but also someone who made considerable contributions outside the academic world, working closely with charities such as Spinal Injuries Scotland. Since 1998, he had been Professor Emeritus at Heriot-Watt University.

He was born in Edinburgh to George and Helen Cowie. He started his education at Moray House School, and then moved to a tiny village school near Portgordon, Banffshire, where he and his mother spent the war years while his father was in the RAF. After the war, the family returned to Edinburgh, and he finished his schooling at The Royal High School.

Although he had been encouraged by his chemistry master not to consider the subject as a career, he ignored this advice and graduated from Edinburgh University in 1955 with a first class honours degree in chemistry. He then continued his studies at Edinburgh, having been appointed to the post of assistant lecturer in 1956, and was awarded a PhD in 1958 for his work on starch and other natural polymers.

That year, 1958, proved extremely eventful. Not only had he completed his PhD and graduated, but in September of the same year he married Ann. The newly-wed couple moved to Canada, as Professor Cowie was awarded a fellowship at the National Research Council. The future looked exciting but just a few weeks after moving to Ottawa, he was the victim of a road traffic accident which left him paraplegic. He spent seven months in Ottawa General Hospital, where he received excellent nursing care. Once he returned to work he found his lab had been adapted to suit his needs and he even had a parking bay with his name on it.

In 1960, he joined the permanent staff of the National Research Council as an associate officer, a post that he held until 1967 when he returned to the UK to assist Professor Manfred Gordon in setting up a Polymer Research Consortium at the University of Essex. This was a pioneering inter-disciplinary group involving physicists, mathematicians and chemists, all with a common interest in polymer science.

However, keen to put something back into the Scottish system, Professor Cowie, in 1969, headed north to take up a senior lectureship at the newly established University of Stirling. There, three years later, he succeeded Professor Ronnie Bell to the chair of chemistry, and was head of the chemistry department from 1974 to 1988.

It was during this time at Stirling that Professor Cowie supervised the first of his many (over 80) postgraduate students and considerably expanded his research interests from polymer solutions to properties of bulk polymers and their blends, including mechanical and long-term behaviour.

In 1988 when the university system was faced with major financial cutbacks which also greatly affected chemistry at Stirling, Professor Cowie successfully moved with his research group to Heriot-Watt University. There he was appointed as foundation professor of chemistry of materials, the post he held until retirement in 1998. He was head of department from 1991 to 1994 and continued to be active in research for many years after retiring, as Professor Emeritus.

He was a prominent and well- known figure among the polymer community, promoting education in this area internally, at Stirling and Heriot-Watt, but also via numerous short polymer courses delivered at academic institutions, industry, as chairman of the RSC MacroGroup and the British High Polymer Forum. He was main editor of the journal Polymer, and served on editorial boards of other journals.

With a research programme in applied areas such as conductivity, liquid crystals and fibre strengthening, he was a consultant for many companies, among which were ICI, Courtaulds, DSM, Akzo and API Foils.

He was prolific in his research output, publishing more than 260 papers together with numerous book chapters, articles for encyclopaedias and books. Among these he is probably best known for his textbook Polymers: Chemistry and Physics of Modern Materials, also translated into German, and now in its third edition.

Not surprisingly, his work was recognised by many honours. He was a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1986, he was awarded a D.Sc. from Edinburgh University, and in 2001, the RSC MacroGroup medal.

In his retirement lecture, he wrote: "The boy could have done better but … he enjoyed doing what he did." It was a typically modest account, from someone who, despite adverse circumstances, was a highly accomplished academic. To many of his students and postdoctoral research assistants "The Prof" remained an advisor and mentor in their professional careers in industry or academia.

He travelled everywhere, on his own, for business. Obviously, he had adjusted his interests: in his teens he was much into sports but later became an avid reader and enjoyed painting, taking a great interest in perfecting his technique. He belonged to a decreasing band of spinal cord injured who had had little choice but to accept a changed lifestyle, with little state support. He knew, however, how important it was to have professional help available at a time of crisis. Over the years, he dedicated time to this cause, through fundraising but also as chairman of Council of Disability, Spinal Injuries Scotland (SIS) and vice-chairman of Disability Scotland. As the convener of the Welfare Committee of SIS, he was keen to improve conditions of newly injured or those with long-term problems and this progressed to a point when a nurse was employed to visit members in their own homes. Back in the 1980s, it was very novel.

In recognition of his distinguished academic career and his personal contribution to the cause of disabled people, he was awarded a D.Sc. from Heriot-Watt in 2005.

Professor Cowie is survived by his wife Ann, his son and daughter, Graeme and Christian, and three grandchildren, Emma, Lauren and Angus.

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