Anderson, Alexander (1858–1936), physicist and university administrator, was born 12 May 1858 near Coleraine, Co. Londonderry, son of Daniel Anderson of Camus, Coleraine. He attended QCG, graduating BA with a gold medal (1880) and MA (1881). In 1884, after coaching by his professor of natural philosophy (physics), Joseph Larmor (qv), he took first place in the scholarship exam, and went on to study physics and mathematics in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, under the distinguished physicist J. J. Thomson. He was the Goldsmiths' exhibitioner in 1882 and was placed sixth wrangler and awarded the mathematical tripos in 1885. That same year he returned to Galway to succeed Larmor as professor of natural philosophy, a position he held till his retirement in 1934. He initiated the development of proper physics laboratories and introduced the first formal physics practical classes. He ran what could be termed two departments, experimental physics and mathematical physics. His teaching load was large: in the session 1894–5 he gave 351 lectures to sixty-two of the college's 114 students. He had wide research interests, both theoretical and applied, and up to 1923 he published twenty-nine papers, mainly in the Philosophical Magazine. Some of his methods – on measuring the viscosity of a gas or the surface tension of a liquid, on coefficients of induction, and on the theory of quadrant electrometers – were included in such textbooks as Worsnop and Flint's Advanced practical physics (1957). He continued the research initiated by his predecessor Larmor in electromagnetics and developed the ‘Anderson bridge’, a method of measuring coefficients of self-induction that became widely accepted. One of his eminent students was fellow Coleraine man John A. McClelland (qv), who also went to Cambridge and worked with J. J. Thomson before returning to UCD as professor of physics.
With the development of X-rays as a medical diagnostic tool (1895), the necessary technology became available and Anderson introduced it into his department the following year (1896). His interest in practical physics led to research on X-ray photography in collaboration with the Eastman-Kodak company, and one of his research technicians, William Hare, provided a service to the medical profession in Galway (1898). Over-exposure to radiation of a young boy's knee and the resulting burns led to what is thought to be the first legal action claiming damages for misuse of ionising radiation in Ireland and Britain. Scientific experts and observers came over from Britain for the case in Dublin (1904), among them Lord Kelvin (qv). The claim failed, but after the case the college donated the equipment to the local hospital and Hare continued to operate the facility.
Anderson was interested in the ongoing scientific debates of the time and was especially interested in Einstein's general theory of relativity (1916), which endeavoured to link electromagnetic and gravitational phenomena. In Anderson's publication ‘On the advancement of the perihelion of a planet (Mercury) and the path of a ray of light in the gravitational field of the sun’ (Philosophical Magazine, xxxix (1920), 626–8) he made what seems to be the first published suggestion or reference to ‘black holes’, and stated ‘thus if, in accordance with the suggestion of Helmholtz, the body of the sun should go on contracting, there will come a time when it will be shrouded in darkness, not because it has no light to emit, but because its gravitational field will become impermeable to light’. This paper is mentioned in S. Hawking and W. Israel, Three hundred years of gravitation (1987).
Outside his scientific research and teaching, he was an able administrator and in 1899 he became president of QCG at the age of 41. With his tact and broadmindedness he guided the college through several major changes: incorporation of the college into the new NUI (1908) and the establishment of the Irish Free State. In the 1920s there was pressure to close the college due to straitened government finances and low enrolments. Anderson lobbied for the college and defended it from closure in 1925. With the University College Galway Act (1929), which increased government funding and required the college to give preference to Irish-speakers in making appointments, its future became secure. He surprised many by his depth of knowledge of the Irish language and was a strong supporter of multi-denominational education. He received an honorary LLD from Glasgow University (1901) and a D.Sc. from the NUI (1909), was elected MRIA (1909), and was a senator and later vice-chancellor of the NUI (1915, 1920). His interests outside university life were cycling, croquet, modern languages, and mountain climbing. On retirement (1934) he moved to 11 Pembroke Park, Dublin, where he died 5 September 1936 and was buried in Deansgrange cemetery. After his death the chair of natural philosophy in UCG was divided into chairs of experimental physics and mathematical physics. His portrait by Charles Lamb (qv) (RHA) hangs in UCG.
He married Emily, daughter of William J. Binns of the National Bank in Galway; they had a son and three daughters. Their daughter Emily Anderson (qv) was professor of German in UCG from 1917 till her resignation in 1920, when she moved to the Foreign Office in London. She was awarded an OBE for intelligence work in the Middle East, and translated and published The letters of Mozart and his family (1938) and The letters of Beethoven (1961). With her mother she was a founding member of the Connaught Women's Franchise League.