William PENNEY, Baron Penney of East Hendred (1909–1991)

Mathematical physicist and public servant

Orchard House, Cat Street, East Hendred

William Penney was born in Gibraltar where his father William Alfred Penney was a sergeant major in the British Army. He opted for a technical education for his son, first in Colchester and then at Sheerness Junior Technical School where his promise was nurtured by the principal, a gifted physics teacher. In 1927 he began work as a laboratory assistant and soon gained a scholarship to Imperial College where he developed his mathematical genius, achieving a First at the age of 20 and then a Ph.D. After a brief period at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, and gained a D.Sc. in Mathematical Physics. From 1936–45 he was Reader in Mathematics at Imperial College.

In 1939 he was asked by Sir Geoffrey Taylor to join the government’s physics of explosives committee and became an authority on wave dynamics. An early task was to help design the Mulberry harbour for D-Day, which required analysis of sea-wave impact. In 1944 he was sent to Los Alamos where his knowledge of blast waves was invaluable in the development of the atom bomb. After the war Penney faced a very difficult choice. He had the opportunity to accept the Sedleian Chair of Mathematics at Oxford but was also was pressed by the government to head Britain’s own Nuclear Weapons Directorate. He was a reluctant recruit but felt that nuclear capability was necessary to maintain the balance of power in the Cold War. After successful test detonations in 1952 and 1957 Penney was instrumental in re-establishing an enduring nuclear defence partnership with the US but he also strove to bring about a ban on nuclear testing. He was disappointed that only a ban on atmospheric testing could be achieved in 1963.

As chief adviser and later Chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (1962–67) he worked hard for a consensus on the shape and scale of the nuclear energy programme. In 1967 he returned to Imperial College as Rector, which proved to be no sinecure in a period of general student unrest. He brought in administrative reforms, put the finances in order and promoted a policy of expansion.

He received many honorary degrees and fellowships, the rare distinction of the Order of Merit, and other great honours for his public service. A knighthood in 1952 was followed by a life peerage in 1967 when he took the title Baron Penney of East Hendred. He had settled in that village with his wife and two sons in 1963 and remained there until his death in 1991.

Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by Brian Cathcart

The plaque was unveiled at Orchard House, Cat Street, East Hendred, on 8 August 2014. The speaker was Professor Steve Cowley, FRS, CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. The ceremony was also attended by Professor Bryan Taylor, FRS, a former colleague of Penney, and by members of Baron Penney’s family and the local community

William Penney

Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


Baron Penney of East Hendred /
Mathematical Physicist
Public Servant
Rector of Imperial College

lived here


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