Sir John Houghton CBE FRS FLSW

20 April 2020

The remarkable Sir John Houghton CBE FRS FLSW, meteorologist, climate change expert and Honorary Fellow of Jesus College has died, aged 88.

Sir John came to Oxford to read physics aged just 16 having achieved the top A-level results in Wales. He earned his DPhil in atmospheric physics and worked with Alan Brewer, making measurements of atmospheric radiation and radiometric measurements of water vapour from aircraft and balloons. He became a Reader in 1963 and in 1973, he was appointed to a personal Chair. Under his direction, the Atmospheric Physics Department expanded and he introduced it into the space era, with a proposal for a radiometric temperature-sounder on the NASA Nimbus satellites, the first of which was launched into Earth orbit in 1970.

A lasting legacy

Sir John left Oxford to become Director of the Appleton Laboratory, overseeing its merger with the Rutherford Laboratory at Harwell to become RAL before being appointed Director General of the UK Met Office. He advised Mrs Thatcher on pollution and was the first co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) scientific assessment working group. In 1990, he was responsible for jointly setting up the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. He went on to win numerous scientific prizes, including a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society (1995), the International Meteorological Organisation Prize (1999) and the Japan Prize (2006). He also authored a number of notable books on subjects related to climate change.

A brilliant scientist

‘John Houghton was not just a brilliant scientist, he had extraordinary political skills as well. To persuade the American Space Agency to offer precious resources on one of their first weather satellites for an instrument from a small UK university group was an astonishing achievement, as was getting the British government of 1965 to pay for it! As his former student and then his successor heading up the Atmospheric Physics Department, we worked together for many years – including sending versions of the instrument he had originally devised to Venus and Mars making them the first British hardware to those planets. His academic career and organisational achievements saw John leading the way not just in the science itself, but also in putting it to work for the people of the UK and the whole planet.’
Professor Fred Taylor, Halley Professor of Physics Emeritus

‘John Houghton was an exceptional atmospheric and climate physicist. As Director General of the Met Office, at a time when pressures on the Office to be a commercially successful organisation were growing, his overriding objective was to ensure that the Met Office grew as a world-class scientific organisation; his establishment of the world-leading Hadley Centre is testament to his belief in the primacy of science. Then, as one of the founding fathers of IPCC, he set the gold standard for all subsequent IPCC reports - as comprehensive politically neutral assessments of the state of climate science. Indeed, the integrity and influence of IPCC’s assessment reports are looked on with envy by those in many other disciplines. John’s interest in my own research was enormously motivational for me and I shall miss his towering intellectual presence.’
Professor Tim Palmer, former colleague