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Memorial Tributes: Volume 3 (1989)

Chapter:Peter Victor Danckwerts

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Suggested Citation:"Peter Victor Danckwerts." National Academy of Engineering. 1989. Memorial Tributes: Volume 3. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1384.
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Suggested Citation:"Peter Victor Danckwerts." National Academy of Engineering. 1989. Memorial Tributes: Volume 3. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1384.
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Page113
Suggested Citation:"Peter Victor Danckwerts." National Academy of Engineering. 1989. Memorial Tributes: Volume 3. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1384.
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Page114
Suggested Citation:"Peter Victor Danckwerts." National Academy of Engineering. 1989. Memorial Tributes: Volume 3. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1384.
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Page115
Suggested Citation:"Peter Victor Danckwerts." National Academy of Engineering. 1989. Memorial Tributes: Volume 3. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1384.
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Page116
Suggested Citation:"Peter Victor Danckwerts." National Academy of Engineering. 1989. Memorial Tributes: Volume 3. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/1384.
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Page117

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PETER VICTOR DANCKWERTS 1916-1984 BY JOHN DAVIDSON PROFESSOR PETER VICTOR DANCKWERTS, G.C., M.B.E., F.R.S., F.Eng., Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Uni- versity of Cambridge from 1959 to 1977, and fellow of Pem- broke College, diecl on October 25, 1984, at the age of sixty- eight. The son of Vice Admiral V. H. Danckwerts, he was educated at Winchester and Ballio} colleges, Oxford. His war record! was ctistinguishecI. As a sublieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, he was awarded the George Cross in 1940 for disarming land mines that had fallen on London. The boIcI, imaginative approaches needed for this work for example, lengths of string were used to extract fuses from the mines were characteristic of his sub- sequent scientific endeavors. He was wounclect cluring the in- vasion of Sicily and later joined the staff of Combined Oper- ations Headquarters. In 1943 he was appointee! Member of the Order of the British Empire. Danckwerts's engineering education began after the war when he used a Commonwealth Funs! (now Harkness Fund) fellowship to study chemical engineering at the Massachu- setts Institute of Technology (MIT) for an M.S. This educa- tional period at MIT (from 1946 to 1948) was a turning point in Danckwerts's career: He often spoke of the rigors of the course and the value of the MIT Practice School. While at MIT, he met T. R. C. Fox, who had just been appointed ~3

114 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering at Cambridge anc! was also learning the subject at that time. Fox recruited Danckwerts to become a member of Cambridge's original chemical engineering team, and it was there in the early 1950s that Danckwerts established an international reputa- tion with a few remarkable papers. The best known of these is his paper on continuous flow reactors, which gives basic theorems about the distribution of residence times. During the early 1950s, when Danckwerts was a junior faculty member at Cambridge, he began work on gas absorption into liquids, a topic that preoccupied him for many years and led to his ~ 970 book Gas-Liquid Reactions, a standard work on the subject. Danckwerts's early scientific efforts were a mode} for what academic research shouIc! be in that minimal funds were needed and there was no necessity for the plans or proposals or grant applications that now constitute the administrative millstone we have come to associate with research. In his Autobiographical Note, which gives a far better impression of the man than these poor phrases, Danckwerts described his early research period as one of"academic indolence." Yet like so many of his remarks, this is not to be taken literally: Like Englishmen before him but to a lesser extent now, he cultivated the notion of effortless achievement; only cads should be seen working. In the same style, Danckwerts professed an antipathy toward mathematics, even though his own discoveries on residence times, gas absorption, and mixing depended on the imaginative combination of simple mathematics and acute insight into physical and chemical realities. His work anticipated what might be called the Bird, Stew- art, and I~ightfoot era of chemical engineering; he was one of the first and most outspoken critics of an education based on the assumption that all problems can be solved by striking out terms in generalizecl equations. Moreover, he believed that a highly mathematical education dicl not promote indus- · · . tr~a Innovation.

PETER VICTOR DANCKWERTS 115 It was with industrial innovation in mind that Danckwerts left Cambridge in 1954 to work under Lord (then Sir Chris- topher) Hinton at the Atomic Energy Authority, but he soon returned to academic life. In 1956 he was appointed profes- sor of chemical engineering science at Imperial College; in 1959 he returned to Cambridge as Shell Professor of Chem- ical Engineering. While there, he established a flourishing research school that inclucled an active group continuing his earlier work on surface renewal at gas-liquid interfaces. Danckwerts prover] to be an effective department head at Cambridge, notwithstanding his distaste for administration: He regarded university committees as "politbureaus." Again, however, it is necessary to distinguish between off-the-cuff comments and his conduct of affairs. While affecting to de- spise elaborate calculations, Danckwerts ensured that the Cambridge department was the first in the United Kingdom to have its own computer an IBM 1620. In the same way, he established a departmental electronics service. Although he dicl not care for the minutiae of teaching, he initiated cle- sign projects as a regular feature of the course, in line with the Institution of Chemical Engineers' requirements. Danckwerts was active in this group and served as its pres- ident from 1965 to ~ 966. He formed, with a characteristically open-ended! title, the Exploratory Committee, whose inno- vative function was to award industrial fellowships to enable faculty members to spenct a year reporting on research topics that were likely to be useful to industry. From 1958 to 1982 Danckwerts was executive editor of Chemical Engineering Science and cluring his tenure created one of the leacling journals in the fielcI. In this work, Danck- werts not only helped promote the welfare of chemical engi- neering, but in a modest way also contributed to the rise of one of our latter-day press barons, Robert Maxwell, who was one of the first to recognize the commercial opportunities in publishing scientific research. In his clay, Danckwerts was a great traveler. In addition to maintaining contact with the United States, he visited India,

116 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES Australia, anc! the Soviet Union. During the early 1960s, a Russian research stuclent now heat] of an institute spent a year in Cambridge. Always an acute observer of humorous paradoxes, Danckwerts remarked that the visitor had saicI, after discussions about British government inertia, "In Rus- sia we also have bureaucracies." Danckwerts retained an affection for the United States and tract a successful year in North Carolina in 1976, forming a link that endures—the Cambridge Chemical Engineering Department has permanently establishect the North Carolina State University Prize, which is given for the best student re- search project. Danckwerts's election as a foreign associate of the U.S. Na- tional Academy of Engineering in 1978 greatly pleasecl him. It was fitting that his last honor, the year after retirement, shouIc! come from the country that had provided his formal education in the subject to which he had made such brilliant contributions.

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