PATRICK Sandars, a leading figure in atomic physics who could count the famous scientist and author Professor Stephen Hawking among his students, has died, aged 78.

Oxford University’s Professor of Experimental Physics from 1978 to 1999, he was also an important university administrator, serving as vice-chancellor of the General Board of Faculties.

Prof Sandars was a fellow of Balliol College from 1963 to 1977, later becoming the university’s head of atomic and laser physics.

Born in London, he was brought up in Oxted, Surrey, and was a descendant on his mother’s side of Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers, whose collections formed the basis of the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Prof Sandars was educated at Wellington College in Berkshire, going up to Balliol to read physics in 1953, achieving a first. His career took him to the US in 1959, working as a research assistant at the University of California in Berkeley, before returning to Oxford.

Of his time as the tutor of Prof Hawking, Prof Sandars once recalled: “Stephen never showed any great interest in what he was set. Once we had to move to the topic of statistical physics, which was part of the theoretical option. I showed him the book that we were going to work through.

“He took one look at it and seemed to take an instant dislike to it. At the end of the week, at the next tutorial, he came back with the book, with every error marked in it.”

Shortly before moving to the US in 1959, Prof Sandars married Patricia Hall, the daughter of Edward Hall, who ran the Moulin Rouge cinema in Headington.

Mrs Sandars, a trained artist, was a skilled jewellery maker.

Prof Sandars died on April 26. His funeral was held at Oxford Crematorium on May 7. He is survived by his wife, their sons Patrick and Andrew, and two grand-daughters.