– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Les Woods memorial exhibition

An exhibition commemorating the 10th anniversary of the passing of Professor Les Woods (Tutorial Fellow in Engineering Science 1960-1970, Professor of Mathematics and Professorial Fellow of Balliol 1970-1990 and Emeritus Fellow 1991-2007) is open to the public on Tuesday – Friday 25-28 April 2017, 2.30-5 pm, at Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre, St Cross Church, St Cross Road, OX1 3UH.

The exhibition, curated by Dr Joanna Ashbourn, draws from from the Les Woods Archive at Balliol College to illustrate aspects of his personal life, his time as a World War II fighter pilot, and his long and varied academic career.

The Les Woods Memorial Fund, set up in his memory, is used to support academic initiatives at the College which may include a book prize or scholarship in his name. If you would like to contribute to the fund, please see this page.


text by Dr Joanna Ashbourn

Leslie Colin Woods was born in New Zealand in 1922. His further education was completed at Seddon Memorial Technical College in Auckland and after war service as a fighter pilot with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, he resumed his engineering studies. This was first at Auckland University College and then in 1948 at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, after which he completed a degree in Mathematics. From 1951 to 1954, Les worked in the Aerodynamics Division of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington and then spent two years as a Senior Lecturer in Applied Mathematics at Sydney University. In 1956 he became the Nuffield Research Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of New South Wales before being elected to the first Tutorial Fellowship in Engineering Science at Balliol College, Oxford in 1961. Nine years later, Les moved to the new post of Professor of Mathematics (Theory of Plasma), remaining at Balliol as a Professorial Fellow. In 1984, he became Chairman of the Mathematical Institute and after his retirement in 1990, he continued writing books as well as his research into thermodynamics, kinetic theory, plasma physics and solar physics. He also published his autobiography, Against the Tide, in 2000. Les passed away peacefully at his Boars Hill home in 2007.

Copy of case01

Case 1 – Personal Life

Clockwise from left:

  • Copy of Les’s birth certificate. Les was born Leslie Colin Woodhead on the 6th December 1922 in Reporoa (near Waiotapu), New Zealand.
  • Photo: Les aged 6 months.
  • Photo: Les as a small boy, with a shark caught by his fisherman father.
  • Photo: Les was a Boy Scout in his youth in Auckland throughout the 1930s and eventually became the troop leader.
  • Photo: Les with an octopus caught during a fishing trip.

Wall: Les with his father at the entrance of the Purangi River, holding crayfish. [displayed in facsimile]

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Case 2 – Personal Life

Clockwise from left:

  • Photo: Les with his parents and siblings, and his first wife, Betty (standing).
  • Photo: Les and Betty on their wedding day in 1943. They divorced in 1977 after 34 years of marriage and Betty returned to Auckland.
  • Photo: Les’s five daughters, taken by Betty, 1964 (L-R: Pat, Jill, Coral, Diane and Liz).
  • Photo: Les in pilot officer uniform with his mother and siblings.
  • Photo: Les in Boy Scout uniform with his mother.

Wall: Seddon Memorial Technical College First XV rugby team in 1939 (Les is second from left in second row) – he attended the College in the 1930s. [displayed in facsimile]

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Case 3 – Personal Life

Clockwise from left:

  • Letter from the Warden of Merton College, awarding Les a £10 book prize, 1951. Les studied at Merton for first his DPhil in Engineering Science and then his BA in Mathematics.
  • Clipping from a New Zealand newspaper on Les’s selection as a Rhodes Scholar to study at the University of Oxford for his DPhil, 1947.
  • Letter congratulating Les on his academic performance at Oxford, from the Warden of Rhodes House, 1957.
  • Clipping from a New Zealand newspaper: Candidates for the 1948 New Zealand Rhodes Scholarships (Les is third from right).


  • Left: Les’s Oxford degrees certificate (BA 1951, MA 1951) and DPhil (1950). [displayed in facsimile]
  • Right: Les’s Doctor of Science degree certificate (1958). [displayed in facsimile]

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Case 4 – Personal Life

Clockwise from left:

  • Menu for Les’s 80th birthday dinner at Balliol College, 28 March 2003.
  • Les’s British Gliding Association Pilot’s Log Book – he took up gliding in 1996 at the age of 73.
  • Les’s gliding certificates for the UK and Australia (used during his visits to Sydney in the late 1990s).
  • Photos: Les during his gliding sessions.


  • Left: Photo, Fellows of Balliol on the Hall steps, 1989 (Les in second row, second from left). [displayed in facsimile]
  • Right: Obituary notice for Les in a New Zealand local newspaper, 2007. [displayed in facsimile]

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Case 5 – Life during the Second World War

Certificate for Les’s official surname change from Woodhead to Woods, 1944.

Photos: Les in Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) uniform, 1940s.

Wall: Certificate for Les’s first RNZAF commission, 1942. [displayed in facsimile]


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Case 6 – Life during the Second World War

Les’s RNZAF Pilot’s Flying Logbooks for 1942-1945; the open page shows that three of his fellow pilots were killed in one night in December 1944.

Wall: Last logbook entries for Les’s wartime RNZAF flying, July 1945. [displayed in facsimile]

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Case 7 – Life during the Second World War

Les’s RNZAF peaked cap, wings, Squadron Leader Identity Card, flying helmet and goggles for his tours of duty.

Wall: Les’s Statements of Service in the RNZAF, 1941-1945, and the New Zealand Scientific Defence Corps, 1950-1954. [displayed in facsimile]

Copy of case08

Case 8 – Academic Life

Letter from the Secretary of Faculties appointing Les as a Reader in Applied Mathematics at the University of Oxford from the 1st of December 1964.

Photos: Les in Oxford, the smaller photo during what he called his “Trotski phase” (ca. 1964).


  • Left: Letter from the Registrar, appointing Les to the Professorship of Mathematics (Theory of Plasma) at the University of Oxford, 1970. [displayed in facsimile]
  • Right: Letter from James Lighthill, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, congratulating Les on his Professorship, 1970. [displayed in facsimile]

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Case 9 – Academic Life

Left: Les’s second published paper whilst at Oxford (1950).

Right: Les’s paper on singular points in Poisson’s Equation (1953).

Wall: Front pages of Les’s papers on fourth order differential equations (left) and compressible subsonic flow (right). [displayed in facsimile]Copy of case10

Case 10 – Academic Life

Two of Les’s papers on aerodynamics during his secondment at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington (1953 and 1957).

Wall: Front pages of Les’s papers on aerofoils (1954) and shock waves (1969). [displayed in facsimile]

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Case 11 – Academic Life

Left: Les’s lecture notes on incompressible viscous fluid flows, in his distinctive neat hand, 1970.

Right: Les’s lecture notes on circular orbits and an oscillating pendulum.

Wall: Les’s 1965 papers on density waves and hydrofoils.  [displayed in facsimile]

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Case 12 – Academic Life

Left: Les’s lecture notes on second-order transport in tokamaks for MIT lectures, 1988.

Right: Les’s handwritten notes on the current in a railgun (1996).

Wall: Les’s philosophy of science papers on axiomatics in applied mathematics (1973) and on entropy and pink elephants (1977). [displayed in facsimile]

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Case 13 – Academic Life

Left: Les’s controversial manuscript on energy transport theory in tokamaks.

Right: Text of Les’s final lecture, the 10th Nerenberg Lecture at the University of Western Ontario in 2007.

Wall: Two of Les’s papers on solar physics (2001 and 2006). [displayed in facsimile]

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Case 14 – Academic Life

A selection of Les’s published books, including his autobiography.

Wall: Photo of Les taken for the jacket of his autobiography. [displayed in facsimile]

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