Lord Alexander Fleck

Lord Alexander Fleck

Alexander Fleck (1889 – 1968), chemist and industrialist, was born in Glasgow on 11 November 1889, the only son of Robert Fleck, coal merchant, and his wife, Agnes Hendry, daughter of James Duncan, coal clerk.

He was educated at Saltcoats Public School and Hillhead High School, but family circumstances compelled him to leave at the age of fourteen. By then, however, his heart was set on a scientific career and, undaunted by practical difficulties, he set about achieving his ambition in the only way open to him, by entering Glasgow University as a laboratory assistant. By attending the university, first at evening classes and then as a full-time student, he gained an honours degree in chemistry in 1911 at the age of 22.

Later, in 1916, he was awarded a DSc for a thesis entitled ‘Some chapters on the chemistry of the radio elements’. In 1911 Fleck joined the university’s teaching staff, continuing his work on the chemistry of the radioactive elements, his findings contributing to the later conception of isotopes. In 1913 he joined the staff of the Glasgow and West Scotland Radium Committee with his own laboratory for radiological work related to medicine and he seemed set for an academic career.

The First World War changed Fleck’s plans. In 1917 he went to Wallsend as chief chemist to the Castner Kellner Alkali Company, which was associated with Brunner, Mond & Co., and manufactured a range of chemicals for wartime industry. The same year he married Isabel Mitchell (d. 1955), daughter of Alexander Kelly, a farmer. There were no children of the marriage. Fleck soon made his presence felt at Castner, both as an individual and as a chemist, and in 1919 he became works manager. With insatiable curiosity, he believed in seeing and trying for himself. A dispute about working conditions with the process men on the sodium plant gave an excellent example of this: the work was hot and arduous but Fleck spent a week on shifts doing the job to find out what was entailed. This won him the respect of the workmen.

The formation of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in 1926, which amalgamated Brunner, Mond with Nobel Industries, the United Alkali Company, and British Dyestuffs Corporation. This had a significant effect on Fleck’s career, for it gave his talents wider scope. One result of the merger was to concentrate the activities of the Wallsend works, the Allhusen works at Gateshead, and the Cassel Cyanide works at Maryhill, Glasgow, on one new site at Billingham. This was later called the Cassel works and became one of the principal factories of ICI’s General Chemicals Division. Fleck was transferred to Billingham with responsibilities for the planning and operation of the new works.

Although there were many technical difficulties, the human problems were greater, for families had to be moved from Glasgow and Tyneside. The fact that most of those who were transferred settled happily, with no wish to return home, was clear evidence of Fleck’s success in dealing with human problems.

In 1931, following the reorganization of ICI, Fleck was appointed managing director of the General Chemicals Division with its headquarters in Liverpool. He returned to Teesside as chairman of the Billingham division in 1937; Billingham was by then one of the world’s great centres of chemical manufacture. This was an important target during the Second World War and attracted well over a hundred high-explosive bombs. Fleck’s daily meetings with his directors and works managers were an inspiration to all to keep the factory in operation, whatever the difficulties.

In 1944 he was appointed to the ICI board but did not relinquish his highly successful chairmanship of the Billingham division until the war ended. As an ICI director, his other main responsibilities were Central Agricultural Control-the company’s organization for marketing agricultural products-and the development of the new Wilton site on Teesside. He was chairman of Scottish Agricultural Industries from 1947 to 1951. He was appointed a deputy chairman of ICI in 1951 and, two years later, at the age of sixty-three, he was elected chairman, a post which he held until his retirement in 1960.

During this period there were great advances in the manufacture of synthetic organic materials such as nylon and polythene. In this high office Fleck remained unspoilt, always courteous and approachable, with a fine sense of humour and an engaging sense of the ridiculous. Wherever he went in the company-and he travelled widely-he was respected for his scientific acumen, his quietly firm leadership, but, above all, for his deep interest in people. He was always a great source of encouragement to the company’s younger members, and liked to hear their views so that his own did not become outdated. Thus, as ICI’s chairman, he was no distant figurehead; rather, he was looked upon as the wise father of a very large family.

He was best in this role at the twice-yearly meetings of ICI’s central council, when he presided over a gathering of some 500 representatives of the employees with a firmness moderated by geniality and understanding. He also initiated the practice of giving a full account of the company’s fortunes in his opening addresses. The one cloud over this happy period of office was the death of his wife in 1955.

Despite Fleck’s preoccupation with ICI he achieved much elsewhere. He was chairman from 1953 to 1955 of the Coal Board Organization Committee appointed by the minister for power; from 1957 to 1958 of the prime minister’s committee on the Windscale accident (in which, it appeared, radioactive material had been released to the public danger); and from 1958 to 1965 of the Advisory Council on Scientific Research and Development. He chaired a government committee on the fishing industry which reported in 1961.

In 1958 he was president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Characteristically, Fleck marked his retirement by establishing four awards to be given to young people in ICI who showed promise. From 1960 to 1962 he was president of the Society of Chemical Industry, and he retained his directorship of the Midland Bank, to which he had been appointed in 1955.

From 1960 to 1965 he was chairman of the nuclear safety advisory committee. In 1963 he became chairman of the International Research and Development Company and president of the Royal Institution. During Fleck’s presidency Sir Lawrence Bragg, a Nobel laureate, retired from his post as the Royal Institution’s director and Fleck was influential in securing Professor George Porter to succeed him. Fleck was awarded the Castner medal in 1947 and the Messel medal of the Society of Chemical Industry in 1956.

To the recognition Fleck gained in industry and in the academic world were added other high honours. He was appointed KBE in 1955-for services to the Ministry of Fuel and Power – and was created a baron in 1961. Fleck died on 6 August 1968 in Westminster Hospital, London and on his death, his title became extinct. With acknowledgement to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. C. M. Wright, rev. Frank Greenaway.