David John Francis Allen-Williams

Born: Sandwich, Kent, February 1918
Died: Augusta, Western Australia, July 2004
Read also a poem, written by granddaughter Sian

Walking humbly amid great honour

"My belief is that engineering is about people, not things. You use the things to apply principles scientists have discovered. But you, as a professional engineer, must be aware that you need to work with people on a project for people if anything goes wrong it will be put right by people."

Thus did Professor David Allen-Williams encourage democracy. As a master of every aspect of his profession, he wished students to see their role as connecting with people, for the good of people at large.

Electrical engineers, for example, must appreciate that the most important circuits they would work with were groups of citizens who may react in unexpected ways. Civil engineers, whether building bridges or highways, needed to be civil to the people expecting to cross them.

Materials for such projects had to be tough... but minds had to be supple. When the University of WA was scouting around England for an inaugural professor of mechanical engineering nearly half a century ago, Prof Allen-Williams was a strong contender. However, having gained his doctorate from research into electronic devices to combat cancer, he did not see his expertise as specifically mechanical.

Though keen to find fresh horizons in Australia, he decided to withdraw his name from consideration. He was preparing to send a telegram to UWA when one arrived from Perth, offering him the Chair.

The man schooled in science and clinical assessment of life's challenges saw this coincidence as 'a sign from above', his family recall with a smile. In 1958, with his wife, Jessie, and their three children, he boarded the Arcadia at London's Tilbury docks under April snow and arrived in Fremantle on a May Day of early autumn sun. The very weather boded well.

UWA would become enormously grateful that Professor Allen-Williams had interpreted the confluence of telegrams in that slightly fanciful way. He brought, among other educational benefits, major industry-funded projects to his mechanical engineering department, says Associate Professor James Trevelyan, who studied under him and now holds a Chair in the same department.

"He convinced the Australian Wool Corporation to give UWA its multi-million-dollar research program on robotic sheep shearing, and persuaded Hamersley Iron and Mount Newman Mining to do likewise. He convinced conservative WA industrialists that their future lay with world-leading research here."

Administrative machinations on campus did, however, tax Prof Allen-Williams' people skills to the full. He referred to the vice-chancellery and associated bureaucracy as 'The Kremlin', alluding to the propensity to blow trumpets vigorously to little effect. "The Professorial Board," he said, had "skilled debaters who were interesting to hear but could, at times, split hairs when I couldn't even see the hairs they were splitting."

Music, a balm to his soul all through life, was surely a welcome diversion from committee meetings.

Long after retirement, in the tranquility of Augusta, he played organ at the Uniting Church, perhaps reflecting on the great encouragement given him by the Reverend Kittermaster, his housemaster at Harrow school, just west of London.

One rhythm of his boyhood was the crash of English Channel waves on the pebble beach at Littlehampton, on the Sussex coast, where he grew up with his parents, Lady Ursula and Sir Arthur Allen-Williams, a civil engineer.

"Listen to the ocean through a tiny shell,
What does it have to say? What does it tell?"

These lines, in a farewell poem by David's granddaughter, Sian, convey his enduring love of the sea and faith that mechanical considerations should never supplant natural wonderment.

He progressed from Harrow to Cambridge University, first studying mathematics before switching to civil engineering. He embraced the world of illusion by joining the Magic Circle and becoming a skilful magician, heeding his father's advice that developing patter associated with performing tricks was good training for public speaking. The best engineers, said Sir Arthur, needed to build oratorical finesse as well as roads and railways.

During World War II, David - a keen amateur radio-operator with a feel for electronics - fell into the sort of niche that movies are made of. Assigned to the Air Ministry, he applied his technical and innovative skills to thwarting German bombers. Luftwaffe crews, guided by a narrow radio beam transmitted from Germany, were meant to drop their load at the intersection of this beam with a second transmitted from occupied France.

"David's task," recalls Bruce James, an engineering colleague in Perth, "was to bend the main beam so that it met the second over open country instead of strategic targets and populated areas. Chatting about this, many years later, we felt confident that a couple of English farmers must have wondered why their fields took such a regular beating."

Disease, rather than enemy action, gave the beam-bender his greatest wartime scare. Posted to India and Burma to work on air-force radar, he caught amoebic dysentery that almost proved fatal.

After the war, he returned to Harwell, near Oxford, where he had worked with a telecommunications research unit. The project to develop a nuclear reactor was a priority that did not appeal to David - who had attended the first Atoms-for-Peace conference in Geneva - until he realised the probable importance to medicine of nuclear science and engineering.

The British Cancer Foundation awarded him a fellowship to work at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, under Professor Joseph Mitchell, who was working on an electron synchotron intended to treat deep-seated cancers. The instrument was eventually superseded by a linear accelerator capable of faster treatment, but joining the Mitchell team did happen to bring him the greatest possible personal blessing.

He met Jessie Findley, a junior hospital physicist, and married her in November 1947. Fortunate to find a 16th-century cottage, at a time of severe housing shortage in Britain, they settled into village life at Bourn, 15km west of Cambridge. Professor Allen-Williams showed his range of loyalties by playing organ at both the Anglican church and Methodist chapel. More important than the location, was the power and the glory of music.

Several years later, he would be among those pulling out all the stops, so to speak, to install an organ at Winthrop Hall, one of UWA's finest cultural and architectural treasures. It is there that a celebration of his life will be held at 4pm tomorrow (Sunday).

Even judicious editing of the host of professional achievements will leave no one in doubt of his place in international engineering. Professor Trevelyan's list includes:

  • Fellow of Institution of Engineers, Australia

  • Fellow of the Institutions of Mechanical Engineers, of Civil Engineers, and of Electrical Engineers - all in London

  • Member of WA Radiological Advisory Council

  • Council member of Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering

  • Member of Australian Music Examinations Board
  • Bruce James, among others, is in a position to appreciate, at tomorrow's gathering, mention of such accolades. Yet he emphasises the man's great gift - not shared by every academic personage - of lucid explanation. "Back in the early 60s, David could talk about computers and space travel in the clearest manner, much appreciated by audiences."

    Professor David Allen-Williams is survived by Jessie, their daughter, Elizabeth Pederick, sons, Peter and John, and nine grandchildren.

    Fellowship, in the widest sense, was the professor's forte. On retirement from UWA in 1984 he postponed heading to his Augusta haven for a greater cause ... Jessie's posting as a Uniting minister to Kwinana. For five years the two scientists and soul-mates lived and breathed afresh in that community.

    While the Reverend Allen-Williams offered spiritual and social betterment, her husband gave her every assistance and joined Rotary as a way of community contribution.

    "Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God," was a Biblical reference (Book of Micah, 6:8) in one newspaper tribute notice to the man who never forgot the importance of humility amid honour.

    by Patrick Cornish
    West Australian Newspapers Group