Gatty, Oliver

The elder son of Sir Stephen Herbert Gatty KC, Chief Justice of Gibraltar (Coll. 1862) of Fonthill, Wiltshire, and Katherine, Lady Gatty, the daughter of Alfred Morrison, JP., DL.   His sister, Hester, married the war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, in 1933.   He was outstanding both as a scholar and as a sportsman. He played for Commoner VI in 1925 and won an Exhibition for Natural Science at Balliol College, Oxford.

In 1930 he took a First Class in Chemistry. In 1931 he was appointed to a tutorial fellowship at his own college, but his ability was for research rather than teaching: his own early research had proven him to be a physical chemist of exceptional calibre. In addition, as The Times stated, Gatty was a natural mathematician.  In 1932 he went to the Ottawa Conference as Secretary to Mr. Leo Amery. The following year he resigned his Fellowship to work at the Rothamsted Experimental Station and went with the Oxford Expedition to Spitzbergen.  From 1935 he was researching subjects such as the electrical properties of frog-skin and the role of calcium in contracting muscles at the James Grey Laboratory in Cambridge.  He went on to work under Professor Eric Rideal, Professor of Colloid Science at Cambridge, writing a paper on the electrical properties of corroding metals.

At the start of the Second World War, Gatty and several other scientists were recruited by the Ministry of Supply to investigate various problems raised by the armed forces and civil defence organizations. One of Gatty’s colleagues was Charles Frank (Sir Frederick Charles Frank OBE); another was Albert Ernest Alexander. Together they conducted experiments connected with gas-mask smoke filters and smoke-screening techniques, both conducted under the cover of looking into ‘Air Raid Precuations’.

On June 5th 1940 Gatty – along with Alfred Stanley Chessum, an engineer who was assisting him – was killed in a field outside Cambridge, aged thirty-two. Charles Frank, Gatty and Chessum were testing a smokescreening apparatus. The test went well, and they decided to repeat it and to photograph it. As Frank climbed onto a container to photograph the results, the test materials exploded, burning Gatty and Chessum fatally.

A memorial service was held at the Church of St Andrew and St Mary, Grantchester on 10th June 1940.

In Janury 1939 he married Penelope Noel Tower, daughter of the Reverend Bernard Tower, Vicar of Swinbrook, Oxfordshire, going to live in Grantchester.   She gave birth to their daughter at the London Clinic some 6 weeks after Gatty’s death.

He is commemorated on the War Memorial at Balliol College and is remembered as a benefactor in the Bidding Prayer of Balliol.   Since 1933 he had anonymously founded a Fellowship in Biology  (it was re-named in his honour in 1942), and since then there has been an Oliver Gatty Studentship in Biophysical and Colloid Science at Cambridge University.


War: World War 2

  • Surname: Gatty
  • Forenames or initials: Oliver
  • House: D
  • Years in School: 1921-1926
  • Rank: Civilian
  • Regiment: Ministry of Supply
  • Date of Birth: 5th November 1907
  • Date of Death: 5th June 1940
  • How Died: Killed during experiment for ARP
  • Location in War Cloister: Inner E1
  • Decoration: NA
  • Burial Site: Possibly Grantchester, Cambridge