By Jane Carruthers FRSSAf

As the year 2016 gets under way, it seems appropriate to recall the life of the man who was undoubtedly South Africa’s most renowned and decorated theoretical physicist. Frank Reginald Nunes Nabarro who was born exactly a century ago and died 90 years later in 2006. Most of the information below has been taken from the obituary of Nabarro published in the South African Journal of Science early in 2007 by Arthur G. Every FRSSAf, Professor Emeritus, School of Physics, University of the Witwatersrand, and from Wits: The ‘Open’ Years by Bruce K. Murray.

Frank Nabarro            Nabarro came from a family of Sephardi-Jewish extraction who may well have arrived in England in the late 15th century around the time of the Spanish Inquisition with other prominent Portuguese merchant families such as Montefiore and Disraeli. Frank Nabarro (known widely as ‘Nab’ or ‘Nabs’) was born in London on 7 March 1916 and he died in London on 20 July 2006. His long life and active career was marked by intellectual activity and distinction of the highest order and it is probably true to say that he put research in theoretical physics on the map in South Africa. His academic interests were wide-ranging but his particular field of expertise was solid-state physics (the physics of defects in crystals) an area that is critically important to modern technology and of which he was an outstanding early pioneer.

Frank Nabarro attended Nottingham High School and in 1934 went up to New College Oxford where he took first class honours in mathematics and physics. He was fortunate to have as his mentor Nevill Mott, who was to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1977. Under Mott’s guidance, Nabarro published ‘the first quantitative estimate of the flow stress of a crystal hardened by a solid solution or coherent precipitate, pointing out the importance of the flexibility and the tension of dislocations in determining flow stress’ (Every: 99). With this and other early papers communicated to the Royal Society, young Nabarro was already an exceptional achiever in an infant and very promising field.

The Second World War interrupted his formal studies, and he joined Mott and others in the British Army Operational Research Group which was headed by South African Basil Schonland. Thus began Nabarro’s connection with South Africa and with the University of the Witwatersrand because Schonland, the first Director of the CSIR, was Director of the Bernard Price Institute at Wits. Another South African in this group of wartime scientists was Solly Zuckerman. Nabarro ended the war with an MBE awarded in 1946. He returned to academia at Bristol University with Mott’s group there. This was a heady time for physics in Bristol, with theoretical physicists aware that their work had value to industry and thus to reshaping the post-war world. While at Bristol Nabarro worked on a number of aspects of crystal dislocations and research fields related to solid-state theory and his contribution to the Peierls-Nabarro force was seminal. In 1949 Nabarro moved to Birmingham University as a lecturer in metallurgy, Theory of Crystal Dislocationsjoining another strong research group. During his time in Birmingham, Nabarro did some of the major work that resulted in his 1967 book, Theory of Crystal Dislocations, described by Manfred Wilkens of the Max Planck Institute for Metals Research in Stuttgart as being the standard book for theory and experiment in this field for many years into the future.

In 1953, after King’s College London had passed him over for its chair of Theoretical Physics, Nabarro applied for and was offered the position as Head of the Department of Physics at Wits. He and his musicologist wife Margaret Dalziel (who had been Schonland’s personal assistant) had concerns over the bleak political future that appeared to be the lot of South Africa. Nonetheless, assured that Wits had no colour bar, that it was full of interesting and liberal people, and – importantly – that the Department could be ‘worked up into something good’ (Murray: 277), Nabarro moved to Johannesburg at the age of 36. Apparently he intended staying for a maximum of ten years but, in the event, his future career was inextricable from Wits, where he was Professor of Physics from 1953 to 1977, Dean of the Faculty of Science from 1968 to 1970, member of the University Council from 1968 to 1977 and Deputy Vice-Chancellor from 1978 to 1980.

As Murray explains, Nabarro’s first years at Wits were ‘tumultuous’. This ‘small dapper man’, whose tongue was as sharp as his mind, believed that he could count on Schonland’s influence to transform the Department of Physics into a centre of excellence. However, Schonland left for Harwell in 1954 and the staff in the Department (some of whom considered themselves worthy of being Professor of Physics) rebelled against being coerced by Nabarro into a coordinated research team dedicated to solid state physics. Their opposition to this ‘impossible’ person delayed the confirmation of his professorship by a year and also resulted in Nabarro twice in 1959 threatening to resign. Finance was also an issue in Nabarro’s unhappiness that year. While he had made huge strides in forming a Solid State Physics Research Group and obtaining some equipment, adequate finance from industry was not forthcoming. However, in 1961 the CSIR and ISCOR made possible a Solid State Physics Research Unit with secured finance for seven years and Nabarro became its Director. As Murray describes, there were hurdles to be overcome in respect of Nabarro’s teaching and also in the politics of the Department where nuclear physics was also important and competition for funding among the various fields of physics was intense. However, despite the difficulties, Nabarro’s ambition to turn the Wits Physics Department into a strong research department to be reckoned with nationally and internationally was to be realised. From a ‘fairly moribund’ department, it was turned upside down by Nabarro to become one of an extremely high standard, energetic with regular seminars and evening discussions, and able to take its place as a ‘large and productive institution’ (Jackson: 101).

In the course of his career, Nabarro produced close on two hundred scientific papers, two of them in the last year of his life. He was a ‘big picture’ scientist and Every recounts how Nabarro echoed Mott in advising young researchers to ‘Try to get a mental picture of what is going on, then find the simplest theory that contains the essential facts. When things become complicated, leave the details to someone else’. He had an ever-inquiring mind, unafraid of learning from others, always keen to consider innovative and creative ideas, and never avoiding intellectual debate.

Having made Johannesburg his permanent home with his wife and their five children, Nabarro also contributed to the national political life of Wits University. As apartheid policy increasingly affected South Africa’s liberal universities and restricted their academic freedom, to the extent that he could, Nabarro defended Wits’s academic freedom and was disappointed when the university dismissed dissident academics, such as physicist and Wits UniversityAfrican Resistance Movement member Baruch Hirson, before they were convicted of any crime. Like many staff of the liberal universities he looked forward to the time when Africans could freely attend South Africa’s institutions of higher learning and in the 1980s, as Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Nabarro even drew up an Academic Plan that made provision for a future university with large numbers of black students whom, he realised, would suffer from poor primary and secondary education. The various public lectures he presented often included his criticism of government policy and his commitment to freely accessible knowledge.

Frank Nabarro retired in 1984 but maintained an active interest in Wits University and his discipline, frequently campaigning for professorial chairs, endowments and centres of excellence in science generally and in materials science and biomaterials in particular. His rate of publication hardly decreased in old age and he continued to supervise students, examine theses, accept visiting professorships and travel extensively to meetings.

He was awarded many honours and medals, including the J.F.W. Herschel Medal of the Royal Society of South Africa. He was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1971, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1973, and was its President from 1988 to 1991. Never one to maintain silence on issues he believed were important, Nabarro was an outspoken member of the Royal Society of South Africa. Believing that the influence of the Cape dominated the Society, in a document entitled ‘The aims the future of the Royal Society of South Africa: A discussion paper’, 19 July 1987’ he stated that this Cape focus had led to its being considered to be ‘the natural history society of the University of Cape Town’, an image that he argued needed to be shed and more national exposure and focus generated. In part this was addressed by the establishment of branches of the Society in other parts of South Africa. He also expressed his opinion on the lack for government support for science in South Africa believing that the Royal Society of South Africa needed to be outspoken in this regard and not hang back from stating its case. In that same paper, he argued that ‘The government of South Africa is perhaps less prone than some other governments to seek or to receive with encouragement “independent advice” … Nevertheless in scientific matters we should offer advice, whether asked or unasked.’ He advocated that the Society keep itself in tune with the changing scientific and political and economic circumstances in the country.

The Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa published an issue of festschrift papers in honour of Nabarro in 2003. Paul Jackson, Professor Emeritus, Physics Department, University of Natal, contributed a brief biography; Nabarro’s CV and list of publications were included as were twelve erudite papers by colleagues. A special issue of the Philosophical Magazine was dedicated to Nabarro in 2006 and symposia were held to honour his contribution to physics. He was prominent in establishing the Academy of Science of South Africa after 1994, and held office in the South African Institute of Physics over many years. He was awarded a number of honorary doctorates and medals to add to the D.Sc. he received from Birmingham University in 1953. In 2005 he received national distinction with the award by President Thabo Mbeki of the Order of Mapungubwe in Silver for ‘Excellence in the field of science and for inspiring all South Africans’.

As Jackson summarised, Frank Nabarro made ‘fundamental advances in many aspects of dislocation theory’, he was a ‘founder member’ of the new field of the application of physics to the problems of plastic flow in crystalline materials and ‘he helped greatly to keep South African physics and scientific community in touch with the wider world’. That South African science is as excellent as it is, is due in large part to inspirational scientists such as Frank Nabarro and they should be remembered with our pride and gratitude.



Every, A.G., ‘Frank Nabarro: A journey through science and society’, South African Journal of Science 103, March/April 2007, pp.99-103.

Jackson, P., ‘Frank Nabarro: A biographical note’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa: A Festschrift to F.R.N. Nabarro FRS, Hon. FRSSAf, 58(2), 2003, pp.101-102.

Murray, B.K., Wits: The ‘Open’ Years: A History of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 1939-1959. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1997.

Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa: A Festschrift to F.R.N. Nabarro FRS, Hon. FRSSAf.  Vol. 58, No. 2, 2003.

Wikipedia, Frank Nabarro,

Readers interested in more information about Nabarro’s research accomplishments should consult Every’s obituary above and the Nabarro festschrift of 2003.