Tragedy rocked a university when three high-profile physics professors died in a single week.

Tributes have been paid to Sussex University scientists David Axon, Wolfgang Lange and Ken Smith after all three passed away during the Easter holidays.

Shocked staff and students were told the news on Tuesday when they returned after the two-week break.

Prof Lange, a 49-year-old professor of atomic, molecular and optical physics, died suddenly while travelling home from a conference on April 3.

Two days later, 61-year-old Prof Axon, head of mathematical and physical sciences, suffered a fatal heart attack during a trip to the US.

The next day Prof Smith, who founded experimental physics at Sussex in 1961 and had since retired, also passed away.

A Sussex physics student said: “Everyone is just staggered by the news. Our department is like a family and this has really hit everyone hard.

“I didn’t know Ken, but David and Wolfgang were a constant presence. David was the dad of the department and was very approachable. They were both lovely guys.”

Sussex University vice-chancellor Michael Farthing described the news as “truly devastating”.

Prof Axon was on a telephone conference call to a group of scientists at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State when he collapsed suddenly.

Prof Philip Harris, head of the physics and astronomy department, said: “David was a giant in every sense of the word. He brought to Sussex his outstanding leadership skills, bringing together two departments to create one of the strongest schools of its kind in the country.”

Prof Lange’s death on April 3 was not suspicious and is believed to be health-related.

Prof Harris said: “Wolfgang was a kind and gentle person, much loved by students and staff alike.

“He was always ready to put his shoulder to the wheel when help was needed, and he contributed greatly to the friendly face of our department.”

Prof Smith was known as the founding father of experimental physics at Sussex and retired in 2003.

At an event marking the 50th anniversary of Sussex last September, he was presented with a bottle of champagne as the only surviving founding physics professor.

Prof Harris said: “Ken’s measurements of radioactive isotopes, which many at the time had said would be impossible, provided valuable insights into nuclear structure.”

The university said schedules would be reworked to cover classes, and support is being provided to staff and students.