Morton, William Blair (1868–1949), physicist, was born 17 February 1868 on the Antrim Road, Belfast, son of John Morton, accountant, and Jessie Morton (née Beck). He was educated at the Belfast Royal Academy and entered QCB (1886), where he studied mathematics under Professor John Purser and graduated BA (1889). He proceeded to St John's College, Cambridge, where he was eighth wrangler in the mathematical tripos (1892). Intending to stay at Cambridge for research, he was coaxed back to Belfast by Joseph David Everett, to whom he acted as assistant in the department of natural philosophy. He succeeded Everett to the chair in 1897, and held it till his retirement (1933). Though there was no department of natural philosophy as such, only a classroom which served as both laboratory and lecture room, he increased the number of lectures and laboratory classes. His genial and self-deprecatory manner, together with his knowledge of his subject won him the tolerance and then the respect of the students, who had a reputation for unruly behaviour at lectures; those less interested cheered and hooted at the success or failure of the ‘experiments’ from the back, and on occasion seized the porter and threw him out of the room. He also initiated a colloquium, open to the college and members of the public, where he discussed and explained recent developments in physics.
After the establishment of the college as an independent university (QUB) in 1909, the title of his chair was changed to ‘physics’. With increased resources he was able to put into action plans he had already prepared for the expansion of the new department, including his design for a physics building. Once erected, the spacious building, with lecture room, laboratories, and workshops, became the envy of other departments. He built up the school of physics and devoted his main energies to teaching and advising. Though an inspiring teacher, he published relatively little, mainly on mathematics, the theory of electricity, and hydrodynamics, in contemporary journals such as the Proceedings of the RIA and of the Physical Society, and the Philosophical Magazine. His own particular interest was in the history of mathematics and the mathematical base of modern physics.
He played an important role in the inception of the new university, including the discussions on the principles that should regulate its character, its government, and the curriculum. His contributions, though unobtrusive and quietly phrased, were a valuable and steady influence on the early development of the university. Unlike others, he did not promote his own department and felt strongly on the need for complete academic freedom. He deplored the tendency for increasing specialisation in undergraduate courses. Through his enthusiastic support for improvements to student amenities, such as playing fields, a students’ union, and provision of equipment for the college, he gained a popular reputation among the student body far beyond the bounds of his own department.
He was appointed a junior fellow (1894) and fellow (1897) of the RUI, as well as acting as an external examiner for the NUI from 1909. Elected an MRIA (1924), he was also a member of the RIA council (1930–33, 1935–41) and vice-president (1932–3, 1939–40). He received an hon. D.Sc. from QUB in 1936. Apart from his contributions to physics, he was renowned for his wide knowledge of the history of physics and mathematics, in particular of the developments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He was also an active member of the university's literary and scientific society. After the death (1945) of his wife (of whom details are unavailable), he discontinued the meetings of staff and students, often held in his home. He eventually dismantled his substantial library, donating the greater part to QUB. He died in Belfast 12 August 1949. There is a portrait in the Great Hall of QUB.