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Book on P. V. Danckwerts by Peter Varey

Life on the edge

Peter Danckwerts GC, MBE, FRS brave, shy, brilliant

Born in 1916 to a naval family in ‘genteel poverty’, Peter Danckwerts enjoyed a golden youth at Winchester College and Balliol College, Oxford. His ambition was to be a chemist but war caught up with him. He volunteered in July 1940 and, two weeks’ training later, Temporary Sub-lieutenant Danckwerts found himself responsible for dealing with unexploded bombs and mines in the Thames estuary.

With the Blitz came huge parachute mines; many failed to explode. The fuses were unstable but Peter’s luck held. Sent to Gibraltar in 1942, he faced Italian frogmen riding human torpedoes and bearing limpet mines. Called to invade Sicily, he absent-mindedly walked into a minefield and was shipped home. Medal stripes (GC, MBE), plaster and crutches enhanced his natural attractiveness to women; in fact, people generally liked him and he seemed to have contacts everywhere.

Demobbed at 29, he journeyed to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to find out how Americans made chemicals in useful quantities. On his return, no self-respecting British company would admit to needing a chemical engineer, so he joined the new Shell Department of Chemical Engineering in Cambridge and, during six years of ‘academic indolence’, applied science to industrial practice and made himself an international reputation as an outstanding innovator. He briefly joined Christopher Hinton in atomic energy production but was soon lured back to academia—first in London as Pergamon professor of chemical engineering science and then in Cambridge as Shell professor.

Although naturally shy with women, he finally met his match—a Junoesque aristocrat related to Lord Lucan—on a London dance floor. An imposing and laconic public presence hid a razor-sharp and wide-ranging intellect, a fine sense of irony and a gift with words. His time in charge in Cambridge was a golden age.

Peter Varey was brought up as a chemist, took an interest in industrial chemistry and then switched to writing and editing. Eventually he ran what used to be called The Chemical Engineer as well as IChemE’s publications. Then, after ten years as a freelance, he turned – at least in this first instance – to biography.

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Peter Varey launched Life on the edge at Heffers, Cambridge, on Monday 11 June. Among the many illustrious guests were Sir Leszek Krzysztof Borysiewicz (Vice-Chancellor), John Davidson (ex-Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering), Sir David Harrison (on the staff in Peter Danckwerts's dept) , the current Shell Professor (and Pro-Vice-Chancellor) Lynn Gladden and Ian Fleming, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Emeritus Fellow of Pembroke College.