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City's Nobel Prize winner gets blue plaque honour; A Nobel Prize winner and one of the first scientists to recognise the might of nuclear power, Francis Aston was honoured in his home city of Birmingham yesterday.

Byline: Emma Brady reports

When it came to putting up a blue plaque at the birthplace of Francis William Aston, there was one slight problem. It had been demolished.

The dilemma was resolved by erecting the plaque on another nearby home that had been occupied by the family in Harborne.

It was due recognition for Aston, who won the coveted Nobel Prize for chemistry in November 1922 for his work in developing the mass spectrograph, a device used to separate atoms and identify isotopes for many common elements.

The eminent scientist, who lectured and worked all over the world, was born in Tennal Road, Harborne, on September 1, 1877.

His family moved to Alton Cottage and then to a new home built by their father William Aston, on the opposite side of the road some time in that year.

When Birmingham Civic Society discovered Tennal House was demolished in the 1960s, it was suggested a plaque be hung on the family's former home.

Freddie Gilk, the society's chairman, said: "The house Francis Aston actually lived in, Tennal House, was demolished at some point in the 1960s.

"But Birmingham doesn't have many Nobel Prize winners so we were very keen to put a blue plaque up on an appropriate building in Harborne.

"So it seemed fitting to put it on Alton Cottage, where the Aston family also lived.

"We award two or three of these plaques a year but we do have a rolling wish-list of people whose lives and works we wish to commemorate."

Aston was a talented cellist, photographer - he made his first camera in 1897 - as well as a keen sailor, walker and cyclist.

He also loved sports, in particular golf and tennis, and was instrumental in moving Harborne Lawn Tennis Club to the grounds of Tennal House.

During a five-year stint at Butler and Co's Springfield Brewery, in Wolverhampton, Aston continued to carry out experiments at his home laboratory, and in 1905 he was invited by Birmingham University to assist with research in the physics department.

In 1910 he joined the research team at Cambridge University as an assistant. After his secondment to the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, Surrey, during the First World War, he returned to Cambridge where his work on isotopes and mass-spectrographs began.

But 1922 was the most momentous year of Aston's life. He lectured in America, Brussels, and London. He was awarded the Hughes Medal by the Royal Society and the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

His Nobel Prize should have been for physics, but that had already been given to Niels Bohr - an eminent name in quantum theory - so Aston won chemistry instead.

In June 1938, after travelling in India, he was admitted to the Evelyn Nursing Home, in Cambridge, where he died on November 22, 1945.

His ashes were scattered at St Peter's Church, Harborne, where the family grave is located.

The scientist's only living relative, his nephew Anthony Aston-Smith, a retired metallurgist who also grew up at Tennal House, said: "There was 50 years between us but I remember Frank as a kindly, elderly gentleman.

"I feel very proud to see this plaque dedicated to him."

Stella Hopkins, who now owns Alton Cottage, admitted she had never heard of Francis Aston until Birmingham Civic Society contacted her in July.

Mrs Hopkins, a teacher at Harborne Primary School, said: "Since then I've been learning all about him on the internet. It was a lovely surprise and we're delighted."

CAPTION(S):

Stella Hopkins with the blue plaque dedicated to Francis William Aston (below) JP030907Aston-6 Picture, JEREMY PARDOE
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 4, 2007
Words:595
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