Professor David Tilley 1937-2023

  • Date

    Thu 20 Apr 23

David Tilley was Professor of Physics at the University of Essex, and later at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang.

David was born in 1937 in Newport, IOW, and passed away at home in Weeley on 31 March 2023. His father was in the prison service, and the family moved frequently when David was young. After secondary school in Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School in Rochester and Thorne Grammar School in Yorkshire, he gained a scholarship to Queens′ College, Cambridge, to study mathematics. He achieved a double first in the Mathematical Tripos, and stayed at Cambridge as a PhD research student. After two years he transferred to Birmingham University, where he met Pat, his wife of 60 years. They married two years later.

From Birmingham he took up a post at the Mullard Research Laboratory at Salfords near Redhill in Surrey. It was here that David completed the transition from mathematics to physics which served him so well in his career. This was in the days of “blue sky” research, new universities, and opportunities for talented (and gregarious) researchers. The Mullard Lab was one of the best industrial research labs, and employed many distinguished and productive people. One of these was Brian Ridley, who moved to Essex in 1964. David followed him in 1967. The University was in its infancy, and David played a key role in setting up the Department of Physics. He had a hand in developing many of the undergraduate courses, wrote an undergraduate textbook Waves in 1974 based on one of his courses, and inevitably became Head of Department, from 1983-88. He was also Director of the Educational Technology Unit at the University, which in 1980 spawned the East Anglian Film Archive, for which David happily gave many presentations. His commitment to education led him to join the Institute of Physics Education Group, where he soon became its Chairman. As such, he sensed an opportunity when the new Irish Branch Committee Member Norman McMillan briefed this Committee about the National Certificate and Diploma Photonics Programme that he had set up in Carlow Regional Technical College. David convinced his colleagues at Essex that here was an opportunity to boost the flagging undergraduate student numbers. Thus the very successful Essex-Carlow BSc (Hons) in Physical optoelectronics was established; the scheme lasted until the Essex Department was closed, and in its heyday was graduating more Irish physics graduates than, for example, Trinity College Dublin.

David was also for some time Associate Dean for Overseas Students, where his wide range of overseas contacts was particularly valuable. He took part in a number of overseas recruitment drives. David was also active in historical aspects of science. After returning from Penang, he gave a Town and Gown lecture on William Gilbert (1544-1603), the Colchester-born pioneer of magnetism, inventor and physician, and he resumed his presentations for the East Anglian Film Archive.

Meanwhile, David pursued a very active research career, and had a great influence in establishing the Physics Department at Essex in research terms as arguably the outstanding small Physics department in the country. His initial research work had involved superconductivity, and together with John Tilley at Essex (no relation) they wrote a book Superconductivity and Superfluidity (1974), an original and successful coupling of two topics that to most physicists are seemingly a long way apart in methodology, despite their names. The book is still generating royalties. Together with M. G. Cottam he wrote the research monograph Introduction to Surface and Superlattice Excitations. This stimulated research work at Essex that led to the first observation of surface magnons in both insulating and conducting magnets. But David′s research interests were very broad: he published papers on superconductivity, ferroelectrics, magnetism, low dimensional semiconductors, superlattices, light scattering, bulk and interface optic modes, quantum wells (the list is illustrative rather than exhaustive). In many ways David′s work was characterised by the range of his contacts: he held visiting posts at Brazil, Malaysia, California, Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Jugoslavia, Colorado, and Canada, with a wide range of distinguished collaborators.

These contacts enabled him, when he left Essex in 1994, to take up a post in Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang. His task there was to direct the research work of the Physics Department, and enable them to establish an international presence. This he did with considerable success.

On a personal level, David was a delight to know. He has left an indelible mark on so many people. He was always very caring and supportive of his students, both the undergraduates and his many graduate students. He was approachable and gregarious, modest, but with strong views that he rarely held back from promoting. It is a measure of the esteem in which he is held by his former colleagues and students at Essex that, although he departed from Essex around 30 years ago, he is still thought of as an integral part of the Department. He was a true team player, always looking to help others.

David is survived by his wife Pat, their three children Julia, Steven and Jason, their five grandsons and one great-grandson.

This tribute was prepared by colleagues and David’s family.

If you would like to contribute a tribute to Professor Tilley please email


David Tilley was my PhD supervisor when I joined the Physics Department at Essex in the summer of 1984. David was a person who readily put you at ease and made you feel welcome. I very quickly formed a connection with David when he told me of his sabbaticals in places such as Irvne, California; Brazil and Malaysia. This was especially the case when David spoke of his fondness for tropical fruit. I recall thinking that this is the first time I came across someone whose liking for mangos, guavas, lychees etc matches my own. David also seemed to know more about tropical fruit than me. He told me of durian, a genus with a terrible smell, but delicious flavour. So, when I visited South East Asia a few years later I thought I would give it a try, and can confirm that durian does indeed have a terrible smell, but also a flavour to which I am still to be converted.

As a PhD supervisor David was extremely supportive and caring. He was generous with his time and encouraging with attending conferences. There were many such events, and perhaps the most exotic was a two weeks’ summer school in Erice, Sicily. I attended this event together with David, Pat, Nick Constantinou and others from the department. It was a great opportunity to meet some of the most prominent researchers in the field of Low Dimensional structures and, of course, experience the food and wine of a wonderful part of Italy.

Later in my PhD we also attended a conference on Solid State physics in Reading; not as exotic as Erice, but it was my home town at the time. I invited David to my mother’s house and he accepted with enthusiasm. Even now I recall David’s compliments for the savoury Indian snacks that my mother had made.

David had a strong sense of justice and was not reticent in giving his opinions on oppression in various parts of the world. Along with serious examples of injustice, I do recall a more lighthearted anecdote in which David was not prepared to let tyranny go unchallenged. I was not witness to this, but it seems there was an occasion when an over zealous security guard at the campus had locked all bicycles that were not parked in their proper places - David’s being one of them. Upon hearing about this David went to one of the workshops, found a pair of chain cutters and proceeded to cut all restraining locks on bicycles that had been chained. A clear victory for freedom !!

Alongside all the human aspects, David possessed an incredible intellect, having studied Maths and Physics at Cambridge University. I have seen others commenting on the breadth of David’s contribution to Physics and even then the list is not complete. I know people have mentioned David’s research in magnetism, superconductivity and superfluidity, low dimensional structures etc. In addition, I would like to add computational physics and liquid crystals. I believe it was David who had the prescience of introducing PCs into the department as a research tool, instead of reliance on centralised computing. Then on the subject of liquid crystals , it is sobering to think that in the late 1980s, the aspiration was to achieve A4 size flat screen devices.

After leaving Essex University I did maintain contact with David and we even resumed the tradition of Physics department Xmas dinners. Apart from the Xmas gatherings we also met on other occasions, when I introduced David to the next generation of my family. After one such occasion with David, Pat, Rodney and Mary I do recall saying to my family how privileged I felt to spend time with people that have accomplished and given so much. David is not with us, but what will always remain in my thoughts is his kindness, and for the rest of us the legacy of his many research papers and informative books.
Nilesh Raj

I was a student in Theoretical Physics at the University of Essex from 1965 to 1968. David was a wonderful mentor and his teaching has served me well throughout my career. I did not pursue the solid state physics that David liked, rather, I remained a theoretical physicist but moved into oceanography. It has often amazed me that things I learned at the University of Essex, centered on what I'd call solid state physics, has given me methods and learning that has allowed me to succeed in oceanography. Thank you David for your teaching and for your support of a very diverse group of students. From Essex I applied to study physical oceanography at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. David likely wrote a letter of recommendation, again, thank you David.
Howard Freeland

I am David Tilley’s eldest grandson and father to his great grandson. It was my grandfathers passion for maths & physics and love for his family that led me to graduate with a degree in mathematics in 2013. He began tutoring me in maths subjects as elementary as fractions at the age of 14, 7 years later we were discussing advanced abstract algebra concepts, astrophysical fluid dynamics (and it’s relation to electromagnetism) and many other topics that he inspired me to study. We did so until the day he died, our last conversation being on the 27th March 2023. I loved my grandfather dearly but he was more than just my grandad; he was my mentor and role model. My son, Leonardo, was incredibly lucky to not only have such an inspirational man as a great grandfather, but also to know and remember him.
Robert Simpson

I was at the University of Essex as a postdoc with David Barber, a colleague of David, in the years 1970-73 and that was when I got to know David. David and I never collaborated in anything to do with physics because our areas of research were quite different, but we became great friends nevertheless. I was a fan of the nearby football team Ipswich Town from the days when I was a student in the boarding school St. Joseph’s College at Ipswich and I continued to attend all their home games while I was at Essex. David learned about my interest and one day he told me that he would like to go with me to see an Ipswich Town match. That was how our weekend drives to Ipswich started during the football seasons in the years 1970-73. I would go to David’s home to pick him up to drive together to Ipswich. That was how I got to know David’s wife, Pat, and their lovely children, Julia, Steven, and baby Jason. Then I left Essex in 1973 and never saw David again. I always thought that one day I would return to watch Ipswich Town again with David, but that never happened. We kept in touch all these years, with David writing me long letters by hand as he disliked communicating by email. I attributed his idiosyncrasy towards computers to the fact that he was an ab initio theorist rather than a computing theorist. So I was quite surprised to receive a long email from David on March 26 telling me about his failing health. I wrote back telling him that I hoped that he would get well soon. Little did I know that David would pass away only five days later. I regret that I did not see David more often when I had the opportunity over the past 50 years. He was a wonderful friend and colleague whom I will forever miss.
Ignatius Tsong, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Arizona State University, USA.

It pains me to hear of the passing on of my lecturer in Superconductivity during my postgraduate programme at University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, England, from 1972-1975. He was a very pleasant, approachable and easy going academic staff of the Department of Physics; and related easily with students in helping to address their problem during and outside lectures. He particularly showed interest in my research work and the use of Liquid Hydrogen and other devices to attain Absolute Temperature of 4 (4K) for my experiments. I indeed benefited from my personal experience and interactions with him. For this, I am ever grateful and appreciative. I sincerely commiserate with the family of Prof. David Tilley on his demise, wishing his soul to rest in perfect peace as I equally pray for God Almighty to grant the family the fortitude to bear this huge loss. Amen.
Prof. U M O Ivowi

It is a sad news for me that Professor David Tilley passed away. Reading the full tribute written by his family and colleagues, I find that he had lived very happy life with his big family. I remember that Professor Tilley was quite tall with a bearded and smiling face while I was doing my Ph.D. study at Physics Department in 1986 -1989. Also I remember that I was invited and attended his home dinner party for department event. As a Department Head, he was very kind and generous. His academic reputation as an editorial physicist in the scientific journals like Superconductivity was very high. It is a pity that I did not see him again after I finished my study and then left Colchester. I pray his soul may rest in peace.
Se-Ahn Song, Ph.D., Seoul, Korea

David Tilley came to the University of Essex in the academic year 1967-68, which was my 3rd year of undergraduate studies. He lectured to us undergraduate courses and courses in the Theoretical Physics MSc programme. During my PhD studies, he would occasionally stop in the corridor to ask me abruptly, but quite sincerely, how I was doing.

But it was only when I came back to Essex as a visiting Lecturer during 1976-78, that our friendship grew and became permanent. David asked me to give him a hand with one of his PhD students, and this simple cooperation led to one common publication on Polaritons in ferrimagnets.

David and Rodney Loudon had consolidated in the Department of Physics the theory group with excellent and productive researchers. It was a wonderful period for me. Invited often to dinners, I decided one day to invite in return the small theory group and their wives. Because I had never cooked before, I called my mother and spent an hour and a half on the phone to learn how to cook. At the end of our dinner party David said to me, when leaving late at night, with his characteristic sociable irony that it was a great dinner.

David wanted me to spend more time at Essex, but the Thatcher policies at that time did not favour British universities. I left Essex at the end of 1978 for a tenured appointment as professor in Rio de Janeiro. Despite the distance, David and Pat kept in touch. And when in 1985 I was offered a tenured appointment as full professor in France, David asked me to give a talk at Essex which I did. Later on David came to France to visit us.

When I look back on our friendship I can freely say that David has a wonderful personality. A solid top theoretical physicist as he was, he branched out equally throughout his life with intellectual curiosity, injecting wit and irony in his multiple endeavours in the UK and elsewhere. Tenacious in his planning to innovate and to solve educational and social problems, he liked people and people liked him. He was a natural leader.

I shall miss him too, like all those who met him and worked with him. I last saw him in the early morning of February 9th, 2023, when he drove me from his house to the railway station of Clacton-on-Sea to catch a train to London. Before climbing into the train, I gave him a long and warm adieu hug because I didn't know if I was going to see him again.
Tony Khater, Distinguished University Professor (CE), University du Maine, France