Professor Sir Robert Honeycombe, one of Cambridge's most distinguished metallurgists, has died at the age of 86.

As head from 1966 to 1984, he broadened the reach of the Department of Metallurgy to encompass Materials Science, overseeing the expansion of its accommodation and research interests, as well as the arrival of a fresh generation of outstanding scholars, many of whom have since become leaders in the field in their own right.

University staff today paid tribute to Professor Honeycombe, who was the longest-serving head of department in the history of materials science and metallurgy at Cambridge. He was a Fellow and then Honorary Fellow of Trinity Hall, and served as president of Clare Hall from 1973 to 1980.

Professor Lindsay Greer, present head of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy said: “We were deeply saddened to hear of the death of Sir Robert Honeycombe. He will be sorely missed by the many friends he leaves here at Cambridge, and our thoughts and condolences are with his family.

“Robert played a crucial role in developing the department, his principal legacy being that he reshaped it to include materials science. He was also an energetic leader of the profession and an outstanding scholar in his own right, making important contributions to the understanding of the plastic deformation of metals, and then to the physical metallurgy of steels.”

Born in Australia in 1921, Robert Honeycombe studied at Geelong College, Victoria and the University of Melbourne. He then worked for the Australian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research before moving to Cambridge in 1948 as a research fellow at the Cavendish Laboratory. In 1951 he was appointed to the University of Sheffield as senior lecturer in the Department of Metallurgy of which he subsequently became head.

His return to Cambridge as Goldsmiths' Professor of Metallurgy in 1966 marked a reorientation of the department. Under his stewardship, a new generation of outstanding teachers and researchers joined the University. This led both to exploration in new areas, such as polymers, ceramics and fracture mechanics, and to the strengthening of existing research areas, such as materials processing.

A major event during his tenure was the move to the Arup building, on the New Museums Site – still the heart of the department. After almost 10 years of planning and construction, this opened in 1971 and boasted a double-storey process laboratory. This facility is still vital for the department, allowing researchers to carry out large-scale operations.

Professor Honeycombe was knighted in 1990 for his services to materials science. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Academy of Engineering, his distinction was also recognised by the award of honorary degrees from Melbourne, Sheffield and Leoben. He was treasurer and vice-president of the Royal Society from 1986 to 1992, and his other prominent posts included periods as President of the Institution of Metallurgists, President of the Metals Society, and Prime Warden of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. He leaves behind two daughters.

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