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Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology

We are saddened to report the death of alumnus and former faculty member, Professor Jim Wilkes, who passed away at Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan on Sunday 6 December, from complications following heart surgery.

Image © Emmanuel College, Cambridge 

James ("Jim") Oscroft Wilkes was born on January 24, 1932 in Southampton, England. He obtained his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1955. The English-Speaking Union awarded him a King George VI Memorial Fellowship to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, from which he received a master's degree in 1956 and a PhD in 1963, also in the field of chemical engineering. As a student, Jim’s pioneering spirit led him to take the very first digital-computing course offered at the University of Michigan. This course had a lasting effect on Jim’s career and led to future research interests in numerical methods, polymer processing, and computational fluid mechanics.

Jim was a faculty member in our Department from 1956 to 1960, and subsequently at the University of Michigan from 1960 to 2000. In December 2007, he was elected a Bye-Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. Professor Wilkes influenced thousands of undergraduate students and mentored over 20 PhD students, many remaining lifelong friends.

Jim’s professional publications include A Century of Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan (2002), and co-author of Applied Numerical Methods (Wiley, 1969), Digital Computing and Numerical Methods (Wiley, 1973), and Fluid Mechanics for Chemical Engineers with Microfluidics, CFD, and COMSOL Multiphysics 5 (Pearson, 2018), a widely used textbook.

Friends and colleagues cherished Jim for his kindness, sense of humour, courage, and grace. He stayed active throughout his retirement by attending chemical engineering and university functions, teaching lectures, tending to loved ones, and hosting candlelit dinner parties.

Jim was a loyal supporter of CEB and friend and mentor to many of our present and past members. He visited Cambridge and the Department every year. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him. He is survived by his wife, Mary Ann.

You can read the full obituary for Jim, written by the University of Michigan.

Below, former CEB faculty member, Sir David Harrison, shares his personal memories of Jim.

Jim Wilkes: A personal memoir by Sir David Harrison

I first met Jim in October 1956 when we arrived together as the most junior members of staff of the Cambridge Chemical Engineering department which had opened just six years earlier. Jim had arrived by way of the Chemical Engineering Tripos, which he completed in 1955 and followed by a Master’s program at the University of Michigan and marriage to Mary Ann; while I had spent 1953-56 as a research student in the nearby Physical Chemistry Department. Chemical Engineering was then housed in temporary (war-time) huts in Tennis Court Road behind Peterhouse. Jim ‘discovered’ Chemical Engineering in his second year at Emmanuel College and had obtained , with the kind assistance of the remarkable Departmental Secretary, Margaret Sansom, a tour of the Department by the first Shell Professor Terence Fox. Jim was for ever grateful for that introduction which determined the course of his academic work and indeed of his life.

Staff rooms were in short supply in 1956 and Jim and I shared an office for the three years before the Department moved in 1959 to purpose-built accommodation in Pembroke Street. I learned a great deal of chemical engineering from Jim because he had been immersed in the subject for the previous three years while I was working in the Chemistry Department. Lectures were given in a free-standing hut and when a very young-looking Jim arrived to give his first lecture he found some of the class outside in the sunshine. He said ‘perhaps we ought to go in now’ to which they replied ‘he (the lecturer) has not yet arrived’. Jim said ‘I am he’.

Jim was a very scholarly university teacher as his fine books on numerical methods, polymer processing and computational fluid mechanics testify. His distinguished academic career although based at the University of Michigan also extended to graduate courses in Bangkok. His academic range was remarkably wide, notably his edition in 2015 of his grandfather’s material on Place Names in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, which runs with many fine illustrations to 600 pages. This work of scholarship attracted praise from authorities like Professor Oliver Padel, President of the English Place Names Society. He was also an accomplished organist to the extent of having an instrument installed at home.

Jim and Mary Ann kept their friendships in good repair to a remarkable extent. John Davidson and I visited their home in Ann Arbor following a Conference in Chicago, and Jim suggested that we travel to Ann Arbor by train, which worked well. There was however a slight problem that our Chicago hosts seemed not too sure where the railroad station was (they would of course have had no trouble taking us to O’Hare airport). How odd the British are.

Jim returned to Cambridge every year, staying in Emmanuel. His last visit was in October 2019 and it followed a well-trodden path. He kindly entertained John Davidson and I to dinner in Emmanuel, then later in the week he dined in Trinity and had lunch in Selwyn. He will be greatly missed.

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