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Dr William J. Tobin (OS 1972)

Stockport Grammar School was saddened to receive notice of the death of Old Stopfordian and renowned astronomer, Dr William J. Tobin (OS 1972), on the 7th July 2022 aged 68.

He leaves behind his wife, Laurence, daughters, Lara and Mélanie, and sister Julie.

Recollections of Dr William Tobin’s formative years:

William grew up in a family of medical scientists. Both William’s father John Tobin and his mother Barbara Glason had PhDs.  In 1961 his father  became director of the Public Health Laboratory  in Manchester. John Tobin was an early virologist renowned for his experimental research.

William went to Stockport Grammar School after his Eleven Plus exams, and his years there were very formative and shaped the ever curious polymath. He had a very high opinion of his teachers, in science where he excelled, but also art, which he kept for many years doing new year cards and bookplates in lino-print.  At school, he also developped wordworking skills which enabled him to produce extremely fine purpose built furniture in the houses we lived in, as we followed each other’s academic positions in Aix-en-Provence, Christchurch and Vannes. His masterpiece is a dome with the exact position of the stars of  the Southern sky in his office in our house in Vannes (pictured below).

William Tobin's dome with the exact position of the stars of the Southern sky in his office in Vannes
William Tobin’s dome with the exact position of the stars of the Southern sky in his office in Vannes

The art teacher took groups for tramping trips in Corsica, sleeping in tents or occasionally school classrooms. William went twice to Corsica aged 13/15 which left a lasting impression of adventure. We were invited to Corsica by friends Easter of 2018 and his memories of the place were very fresh.

His friend David Miller from Stockport Grammar School remembers how William led the rebuilding of the 1950s valve-driven computer for the school. As quoted in an article David wrote in The Stopfordian in 1971: “From this seemingly hopeless mess…a new and working computer has arisen ; it is known as AGATHA.  In William Tobin’s bedchamber, and very largely owing to his efforts, junk was transformed into computer… “.

David Miller’s article in The Stopfordian 1971

After University entrance exams, William stayed on for a term,  and then took a job in Yorkshire as a waiter in a self-service restaurant, travelled in Europe on a railpass, went to archeological digs in France, before starting university at Emmanuel College in Cambridge.  He went on to do a PhD at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and later had a 3 year appointment at the University of Saint Andrews.

William and I  both had temporary lectureships at the University of Saint Andrews when we met in 1981 and as I had to go back to France for a job interview in Aix en Provence in June of that year, William took me to London via Manchester.   He drove me past his old  school and we went on to meet his former French teacher, revealing his early life.

In later years, William mostly worked in the history of 19th century science and he isrecognized as a world authority on the life and work of Léon Foucault.

Central to William’s life was science and physics as a way of gaining a deep and rational  understanding of the world.  He was an internationalist and a European at heart, believing in fairness and human rights.

by Laurence Tobin, William’s wife


William and I had been friends for 62 years, from the time he joined, aged 7, the primary school I was already attending. In those regimented days, we always sat in front of or at the side of each other and therefore spent much time in close contact. William was much brighter than me and had a very different personality, despite this, a lifetime friendship developed. Although physically  separated in later years, we continued to have regular conversations, which included Laurence on most occasions,  which were always a joy.

From the start of our friendship, it was quite clear that William was an exceptional person, very clever academically, especially in maths and science, but also he had other admirable personality traits. He supported the underdog –whoever they were- one of his memorable sayings was “the minority is always right.” He was proved to be correct many times in that view.

William was also relatively eccentric but in a delightful way, I did not know his parents particularly well but I think the eccentricity came from John, his father, who was memorable for restoring a very old and stately Rolls Royce. At one point when he was a student in Cambridge, William developed an interest in water divining and insisted during  a visit I made that we should give it a try by walking behind Kings College Chapel, each holding an empty Bic Biro which held long pieces of bent coat hanger. Incredibly the rods moved although we chose not to dig up the lawn to search for water.

William had a zeal and determination to follow through on matters he felt passionate about, the final example of this was his piece de resistance – the decision to stand against Boris Johnson in the 2019 UK general election to make a stand against the ineligibility of UK citizens who lived abroad to vote in the Brexit Referendum. William was very disappointed to have attracted I think 5 votes – he hoped not to gain any at all.

The first example I recall of William taking a stand was during a school camping trip to the Scottish Isle of Mull, where my cousin Richard was a supervisor. At that time Richard, aged about 19, smoked, William aged 12 decided this was a bad thing and proceeded to throw the cigarettes into the sea. That took some hutzpah.

by William Tacon (OS 1971)


Obituary by John Hearnshaw, emeritus professor of astronomy, University of Canterbury:

William Tobin, who has died in France aged 68, was a renowned Kiwi astronomer and, in later life, a fierce opponent of Brexit.

As an expat Briton who had not lived there since the early 1980s, he was frustrated and angry at being unable to vote in the Brexit referendum of 2016, or in British general elections. However, he discovered that he was nonetheless eligible to stand for Parliament.

So in 2019 he stood in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip under the slogan “Don’t vote for Tobin, let Tobin vote!”

Five people ignored his pleas, giving him the lowest vote count of any candidate in the entire election. His press release after the count noted: “The prime minister asked people in Uxbridge & South Ruislip to vote for him, and 25,351 out of 48,157 did so. I asked them not to vote for me, and 48,152 heeded my call. This is a massive majority!” This beautifully illustrates Tobin’s quirkiness.

He was born in Manchester, and did his first degree in natural sciences at Cambridge University. There he befriended a group of women medical students from Newnham College. His signature charm activity was punting on the River Cam with a gramophone on the deck.

He kept close contact with his Cambridge friends all his life and they regularly visited the family in Brittany after he retired from the University of Canterbury.

William Tobin, wearing his 2019 election badge.
William Tobin, wearing his 2019 election badge.

After Cambridge, he did masters and doctoral degrees in observational astronomy at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, followed by a postdoctorate lectureship at St Andrews​ (1979-82), and five years at the Laboratoire d’Astronomie Spatiale and the Observatory in Marseille. It was in St Andrews in 1981 that he met his French future wife, Laurence.

He arrived at Canterbury University in April 1987, as a lecturer in astronomy. He had relatives all over New Zealand, after two Tobin brothers migrated here in 1871.

His grandfather, Charles O’Hara Tobin, was born in New Zealand and served as a chaplain for the NZ Expeditionary Force in Malta during World War I.

Tobin was also a director of Mt John Observatory and is remembered for his definitive biography of the French astronomer Léon Foucault. He served the university for 19 years, until April 2006.

The core to Tobin’s life was his deep reverence and appetite for science, which guided him in his life. But on top of that, his characteristics were a remarkable sense of humour and having fun, a great loyalty to many friends all over the world, and always wanting to support the underdog in any controversy.

Some described him as mildly eccentric, but any eccentricity was always charming and endearing.

His academic interest was in the spectra and photometry of blue stars, and he made a special study of the star beta Pictoris while working at Mt John. He was able to confirm the observation of infalling comets frequently colliding with the star.

He also studied eclipsing binary stars in the Magellanic Clouds, and produced many light curves of these stars, working with his PhD student Glenn Bayne.

Another interest was the history of astronomy, which led to an extensive study of past transit of Venus expeditions, as well as the well-researched and widely acclaimed biography of Foucault, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2004.

Tobin was a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand and was a regular contributor to the society’s magazine with articles and book reviews.

William Tobin in front of a class at the University of Canterbury University.
DON SCOTT/STUFF William Tobin in front of a class at the University of Canterbury University.

He retired from Canterbury in 2007, in order to spend all his time with his family in Vannes, Brittany. Laurence had returned to a teaching position in Vannes some years earlier. For several years he had gone back and forth between France and New Zealand, but he found this lifestyle was too arduous.

Nevertheless, he maintained a close connection with New Zealand, returning on five occasions between 2008 and 2017. The first of these was to take up a visiting Erskine fellowship in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Canterbury in 2008.

On subsequent occasions he came to the Starlight Conference in Tekapo in 2012, to the Mt John Observatory 50th Anniversary Conference in 2015 and he made further visits in 2016 and 2017, the last of these being with Laurence and daughter Melanie, who was born in Christchurch.

He had a wide circle of friends in New Zealand and excelled at repartee and convivial conversation. He enjoyed good food and wine, so was always great company at dinner parties.

At one party for a dozen people in Christchurch in 2016, he recalled that he was a student at Stockport Grammar School near Manchester, one of England’s oldest and more renowned boys’ schools. But he noted there was a sister girls’ school next door and one of the school rules was no intercourse with the girls through the boundary fence.

This story produced gasps and much hilarious laughter, but was a classic albeit slightly risqué Tobin remark. He certainly loved New Zealand, and acquired dual UK and Kiwi nationality.

His decision to stand for Parliament in 2019 was spurred by there being about 2 million disenfranchised expat Britons living abroad, many in continental Europe, and about 2.2m foreigners in the UK who were also unable to vote.

In the Brexit referendum of 2016, 17.4m voted leave and 16.1m voted remain. Tobin noted that the combined 4.2m ineligible voters may well have given a very different result had they been allowed to vote.

Subsequently, the UK government did amend the election rules for expats, but too late for the Brexit referendum, and Tobin was never able to exercise his new voting rights, the next UK election not being due until 2024.

Tobin was first diagnosed with cancer in 2012, but he never complained and continued his activities, going to lectures on all kinds of topics at the university in Vannes, and pursuing many projects.

These included a six-week lecture trip to China in 2018, trips to Italy, New Zealand and the USA, as well as standing for Parliament and writing numerous articles and demonstrating against the war in Ukraine every Saturday morning in Vannes.

For all who knew William Tobin, we will greatly miss his academic excellence as an astronomer, his warm friendship and his wit, charm and endearing eccentricities.

With thanks to Laurence Tobin and Professor Alison Downard, of the University of Canterbury, for useful information and helpful comments.