We met at King's – A lifetime of discovery

Valerie and Michael Calderbank on their wedding day in 1966 and on a cruise in 2015
From left to right: Valerie and Michael on their wedding day in 1966 and on a cruise in 2015


Valerie and Michael Calderbank (Physics, 1966 and 1964) met at a Maxwell Society weekend in 1964. They married two years later and recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.


A whirlwind romance
Valerie and Michael met at a Physics Society weekend at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor Park. Valerie recalls: ‘it was such a romantic place to meet, with oak panels, log fires and royal history, even more so as it was snowing! We enjoyed many walks in the park and talked and talked.’ It was a meeting that would change the rest of their lives. After a whirlwind romance, Michael proposed four months later and they married after graduating.’

The swinging 60s
They both have very happy memories of London. ‘It was a special time. There was an air of optimism and London seemed to be the centre of the world. I had grown up in a very remote village, so it all seemed so magical’ says Valerie. One of her earliest memories was the day of the Fresher’s parade when she marched behind the Engineers who were guarding the mascot, Reggie the Lion. ‘The London traffic was stopped for us as we marched along the Strand. It was so exciting!’ she recalls.

A London wedding
Their most treasured memory is of course their wedding. They married at Marylebone Town Hall ‘where all the pop stars married,’ says Michael.

King’s at the forefront of science
It was an inspiring time for Physics at King’s too. Valerie had always wanted to be a physicist, having been inspired by Marie Curie. ‘I wasn’t interested in the limited career options open to women at that time’ she says. ‘It was my dream to study atomic physics and, if possible, marry a physicist, and for us to spend the rest of our lives doing scientific research together. I also wanted to combine this with marriage and a family as Marie Curie had done. As life has turned out, I achieved all these things!’

They found it such a privilege to be at King’s in 1963. ‘It was just after Maurice Wilkins had been awarded the Nobel prize for his role in unravelling the structure of DNA. Rosalind Franklin had sadly died, but Wilkins and Professor John Randall were still there’ says Valerie. ‘I remember the excitement around the first photos of DNA and them being displayed in the corridors of the Wheatstone Lab’ adds Michael. Valerie specialised in Nuclear Physics and Biophysics and even took an image of a strand of DNA herself (pictured below). There were also advances in particle physics. It was during this time that the omega-minus particle was discovered.


An image of DNA taken by Valerie in 1965

After graduating Michael did a PhD in Nuclear Physics and Valerie briefly worked in King’s Nuclear Physics Group. Whilst there she taught herself computer programming and was encouraged to write a book. The book was hugely successful and became a standard university text for many years. After King’s they both moved into computer science, doing systems programming at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s lab in Oxfordshire, where they stayed until retirement.

Keeping an active mind
After retiring Valerie took up astronomy as a hobby, studied long distance, and ended up being elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society on Sir Patrick Moore’s recommendation. She now lectures on cruise ships, explaining some of the big ideas in physics to lay audiences and Michael self publishes her talks as books. Their advice as you get older is to stay active physically and mentally – you never know what it might lead to. ‘My education has given me a desire to keep learning and maintain an active mind’ says Michael.

The secret of their success?
Both say they are bonded by their passion for science, as well as many other interests, similar tastes and sense of humour and loyalty.

Forever King’s
Valerie says ‘King’s has had a huge impact on my life. I owe so much to King’s for providing me with an excellent education, a great career, a caring husband and enabling me to fulfil a childhood dream.’

We are very grateful that Valerie and Michael will be supporting King’s by leaving a gift in their will. ‘When we look back over our lives, our achievements have exceeded our wildest expectations' they said. 'We owe this in no small part to King’s, not just the excellent education but the experiences we had. We are so grateful that we want to show this by supporting King’s in our will.’


Valerie and Michael’s wedding in 1966

We’re so glad that King’s brought Valerie and Michael together and we thank them for sharing their story with us.

The Importance of Gifts in Wills to King’s
A gift in a will is one of the most important donations that the College can receive. The impact of a gift in a will is long lasting, it will play a fundamental role in supporting future generations by providing students with an opportunity to excel at an internationally recognised centre of excellence. It can also fund vital research which helps King’s continue its goal of service to society. 

If you are interested in leaving a gift in your will please contact our Legacy Officer Andreas Avraam at andreas.avraam@kcl.ac.uk.


To buy Cruising the Cosmos
Download for kindle at Amazon
Email valmikec@gmail.com to buy a printed or Epub version
Further information: www.calderbank.org.uk




This is an ongoing series of stories about alumni who met at King's and we're on the hunt for more. Please email forever@kcl.ac.uk to submit yours.

Read more We met at King’s alumni stories.