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Mason, Stephen Finney (1923–2007), chemist and historian of science, was born on 6 July 1923 at 11 Prebend Street, Leicester, the son of Leonard Stephen Mason, motor bus proprietor, and his wife, Crissie Harriette, née Finney, both of 24 Leicester Road, Anstey, four miles from Leicester. The family ran a general store and garage in Anstey with Crissie's father, Sam Finney, a former farm worker. Mason's father ran a bus service to Leicester but left the family and business in 1927. Mason won a scholarship to Wyggeston Grammar School, Leicester, and an open scholarship to study chemistry at Wadham College, Oxford. He took a first in 1945 and completed his DPhil in 1947, on the biological activity of antimalarials—then a key topic because of the wartime Japanese occupation of the cinchona plantations of Java—under Dalziel Llewellyn Hammick.

Mason's interest in the history of science was awakened by the connection between Wadham College and Bishop John Wilkins in the Commonwealth period. As a result of an essay he wrote on the proto-chemistry of Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and John Mayow for a junior research fellowship at Magdalen College he was invited by Frank Sherwood Taylor, the curator of the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford, to join his staff as a departmental demonstrator (junior lecturer) in 1947. He had been blocked from any further progress in the university chemical hierarchy by the hostility of Robert Robinson (towards Hammick rather than Mason). Taylor also prevailed on Mason to become the secretary and treasurer of the Society for the Study of Alchemy and Early Chemistry, which was then in a rather parlous state as a result of the death of its patron, Sir Robert Mond, and the war. The close relationship between Taylor and Mason was surprising in some ways. Taylor was a Catholic apologist while Mason became a member of the Communist Party. He joined Christopher Hill's Communist Party Historians Group, but left the party with Hill in 1957 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Another member of the group was Bridget Sutton [see ], and they were married on 31 December 1949. This marriage did not endure (she subsequently married Christopher Hill), and on 1 October 1955 Mason married Joan Banus (1923–2004), an assistant lecturer in chemistry at University College, London, and daughter of Mark Banus, accountant. She went on to have a distinguished career as a chemist, at the University of East Anglia and the Open University, specializing in particular in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. They had three sons, Oliver (b. 1957), Andrew (b. 1959), and Lionel (b. 1960), who became respectively an electronics engineer, a professor of gastroenterology at the University of Alberta, and a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford.

As a result of teaching the university course on the history of scientific ideas Mason became interested in the relationship between the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the voyages of discovery on the one hand and the agricultural and industrial revolutions on the other. He also worked briefly with Joseph Needham in Cambridge in 1950 on the history of Chinese science, which broadened his interests to the relationship between science and non-Western civilizations. Soon afterwards, however, his career reached a watershed when Hammick retired in 1952 and Mason no longer had access to a chemical laboratory. By this time Taylor had left Oxford to become director of the Science Museum at South Kensington. His position at the museum had been taken by Kurt Josten, a historian of alchemy and astrology who was a German Catholic monarchist. Under him Mason's prospects as a historian of science were not good and he decided the best course of action was to become a professional chemist and an amateur historian of science.

In 1953 Mason joined Adrien Albert at the medical chemistry department of the Australian National University, which was then based at the Wellcome Institute in London, while Albert waited for the completion of the department's laboratories in Canberra. In the course of his work with Albert, Mason took up spectroscopy and theoretical chemistry—partly under the influence of Charles Coulson—which became his major field of research. In 1956 Albert and his group moved to Canberra, but facing opposition from conservative elements in the university Mason took up a lectureship in chemical spectroscopy at the University of Exeter, where he developed his interest in the technique of circular dichroism (the absorption of polarized light across the spectrum). He benefited from the explosion of new universities in the early 1960s when he was offered a chair in chemistry at the new University of East Anglia in 1964. His acceptance by the scientific establishment was sealed by a chair at King's College, London, in 1970 and his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1982. He served on the council of the Chemical Society (from 1980 the Royal Society of Chemistry) in 1964–9 and 1978–81.

At King's College, London, Mason worked on ligand polarization theory and the relationship between the weak nuclear force and the origin of bimolecular homochirality. Ligand polarization theory is based on the assumption that the physical properties of transition metal complexes (such as their spectra) can be explained by the electronic influence of the transition metal ion on its ligands (the species bound to the metal ion) in contrast to the older and more conventional crystal field theory which emphasizes the influence of the ligands on the metal ion. Mason's work in this field led to his last major publication, Chemical Evolution: Origins of the Elements, Molecules and Living Systems (1991). In this widely praised book he combined his understanding of spectroscopy, biochemical systems, and the history of science to explain the evolution of ‘handedness’ (chirality) in the universe and hence the origin of life, a topic that had been of long-standing interest to Marxists, stemming from the materialist ideas of Friedrich Engels and the research of the Soviet biochemist Alexander Oparin in the 1920s.

Despite all this scientific activity Mason never lost his interest in the history of science. He had published a ground-breaking work, A History of the Sciences: Main Currents of Scientific Thought, which arose out of his teaching on the scientific revolution at Oxford, in 1953. In sharp contrast to the orthodox Marxist view—established by Boris Hessen in the 1930s and faithfully followed by J. D. Bernal—that science had been shaped by economics and capitalist society, Mason argued that both economic and intellectual factors had been important in its development. He also continued to publish papers in the history of science. In 1974, through the pages of Chemistry in Britain, he invited his fellow members of the Chemical Society to join him in setting up a historical group. The first meeting of the group was held at King's College, London, in 1975, with Mason in the chair; he left the leadership of the group in 1980, but it remained active.

When he retired in 1988 Mason moved to Cambridge, where his wife, Joan, had academic links. He became an honorary research associate in the department of history and philosophy of science, and a fellow of Wolfson College. He died of cancer at his home, 12 Hills Avenue, Cambridge, on 11 December 2007. He was survived by his three sons.

Peter J. T. Morris

Sources  

www.rsc.org/Membership/AboutRscMembership/Obituaries/SMason.asp, accessed on 19 March 2010 · Ambix, 55/2 (July 2008), 97–8 · S. F. Mason, memoir, March 2007, RS · WW (2007) · private information (2011) [Lionel Mason, son] · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

King's Lond., papers and corresp.


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in www.rsc.org/Membership/AboutRscMembership/Obituaries/SMason.asp

Wealth at death  

£855,198: probate, 1 April 2008, CGPLA Eng. & Wales