Professor Ludwik Finkelstein

Engineer, scientist and educationist who became a world authority on measurement and a founder of City University in London

Even if it had not been so unlikely, Ludwik Finkelstein’s life and career would still have been counted remarkable.

A pioneer in turning the design of measuring instruments from an art into a science, a world authority on measurement and control engineering, the scientist designated to be in charge of London’s response to a nuclear war, Professor Finkelstein also became a noted scholar on Jewish history and one of the academic leaders who helped to turn the Northampton College of Advanced Technology into City University London, one of the foremost institutions for education in the professions.

But none of this seemed to be his destiny when he was born, in Lvov, in 1929. The only son of a wealthy family, he was marked out to run the family’s iron and steel firm. A future as a business man beckoned, and the likelihood of following his father as an identifying but unobservant Jew, and a leader of Lvov’s civic life.

Then came the war, and it turned his life upside down. The Russians and the Nazis arrived simultaneously outside his town in 1939, and the community had to choose whom to surrender to. With so many Jews in Lvov, they chose the Soviet forces. The Polish military officers — including many Finkelstein family friends — were promptly shot in the woods in Katyn. Ludwik’s father, Adolf Finkelstein, an officer of the Polish Army Reserve and a town councillor, vanished into a labour camp, while he and his mother were deported to a remote settlement on the borders of Siberia.

Many neighbours died of disease and hunger, and Ludwik Finkelstein and his mother would surely have succumbed too, in time, had not Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. Adolf Finkelstein was released from prison and his family from deportation.

After nearly two years the family were reunited and, joining the staff of General Anders, Adolf Finkelstein took his family to the Middle East with the Polish Army Corps, the so-called Anders Army.

There was, however, to be no fairytale ending. After Yalta the family realised that they would never be able to go home again. Adolf Finkelstein died shortly after being demobilised in Britain, and his family, once so prosperous, were left alone in London, impoverished, reliant on national assistance, and part of a small Polish community robbed of its history by the Polish communists, of its homeland and of professional standing.

Finkelstein was forced to start again. And a man who was to become an acclaimed teacher and academic, embarked on his professional life having the benefit of just six weeks’ formal secondary schooling, at the Trans-Siberian Railway School. The rest of his qualifications — the envelopes he received at the end of his life featured two full lines of letters after his name — he gained by teaching himself. His mother taught him English under the blankets in the freezing Siberian winter, and he eventually mastered nine languages, speaking most of them without a hint of a foreign accent.

For all his mastery, gained from books, of history, culture and language, he determined on a degree in physics and a career as an engineer. He later said that it was his wartime experiences that led him down this path: “I became convinced that the basic needs of humanity for food, water and shelter were of paramount importance, and it is through technical means that it must be provided.”

And it was not long before his calling led him down the coalmines. Within a year of gaining his first degree from the Northern Polytechnic, Finkelstein had joined the Mining Research Establishment of the National Coal Board. Mining was then one of the country’s core industrial activities, and, after the war, talented scientists were keen to use the technical knowledge they had gained to solve the industry’s problems.

Spending much of his time underground, Finkelstein helped to design and test instruments that could, for instance, measure the hardness of British coal, thus assessing its suitability for new methods of extraction.

He loved the work, and until the end of his life had a mining lamp hanging in his study at home. But he became convinced, partly through careful study of transducers, that the design of instruments could be less haphazard, more a scientific discipline. And so he took the biggest step of his professional life. He accepted a position as a lecturer in Instrument and Control Engineering at Northampton College of Advanced Technology.

Thus began his most important intellectual work. He bridged the gulf that separated practitioners from theorists, by making it possible to consider measurement problems systematically and by treating scientific instruments as machines that process information.

A notable area of his work, with colleagues, was mathematical modelling of instruments, a technique that he applied to a wide range of problems in industry and medicine. His distinction as a measurement scientist — he was the author of some two hundred papers and four books — resulted in his appointment as a professor and, later, his election to the Royal Academy of Engineering and president of the Institute of Measurement and Control.

This had another consequence: he became a devoted teacher and university manager. The expansion of higher education in the mid-1960s that followed the Robbins Report, saw Northampton become City University, and Finkelstein became one of its mainstays, becoming the first Dean of its School of Engineering and later serving as its pro-vice-chancellor.

He took pride as its reputation grew. Even in retirement he remained a much-loved figure at City, where an engineering laboratory was recently named after him.

In parallel with his work at his university he joined the Civil Defence Corps in 1952 and rose to become the chief regional adviser for Greater London. Occasionally he would joke about preparations for nuclear war (noting that he had used an emergency number on an exercise and been told by a housewife in Sheffield: “You’re the fifth one I’ve spoken to today love, it’s the wrong number”).

But he was devoted to the work, took it seriously, and eventually was awarded the Civil Defence Medal, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal and, in 1990, was appointed OBE for his contribution. As his career blossomed, so did his family life.

In 1957 he married Mirjam Wiener, a graduate scientist, daughter of the well-known historian of Nazism, Alfred Wiener, and, like her husband, a refugee (in her case, as a survivor of Belsen concentration camp). With her, he enjoyed an extremely happy marriage and home. A highlight of this was the weekly Friday evening family dinners to celebrate the ushering in of the Sabbath.

Although his parents had not been observant Jews, Finkelstein became committed to his own brand of Reform Judaism. And, building up a vast library of books, he became a noted authority, able to debate on equal terms with leading scholars and rabbis.

Upon retirement he became a Fellow of the Rabbinical college for progressive Jews, the Leo Baeck College, and earned a PhD for his work on the development of the reform movement and the Rabbinical School of Warsaw in the 19th century. He did this while continuing his scientific work. His last paper on measurement was being read in Germany at the same hour that his funeral was being held in London.

Despite a turbulent childhood and reversals that might have made some people bitter and wary, Finkelstein was neither of those things. He was devoted to Britain, and optimistic about it. He was characterised by a warmth, generosity and gentle humour that made him as much loved by those who encountered him as he was admired.

It is perhaps his greatest achievement that, having succeeded in many fields where jealousies can often thrive, almost nobody had a bad word to say about him. In 1950 Finkelstein was a penniless refugee, the only son of a widowed mother. He died a celebrated man, leaving a wife, three children integrated into the professional life of his adopted country, and eight grandchildren.

Professor Ludwik Finkelstein, OBE, measurement and control engineer, was born on December 6, 1929. He died on August 27, 2011, aged 81

Published in The Times on 2 September, 2011

Professor David Rhind, vice-chancellor, City University, 1998-2007, writes: Universities are sometimes places where internal competition is rife, egos conflict and narrow disciplinary views are commonplace. Revolutionary ideas about how the world should be improved often exist alongside deep conservatism about internal arrangements. Ludwick Finkelstein (obituary, Sept 2) was above all that. He was respected universally by his City University colleagues and by many others for his erudition, unfailing intellectual curiosity, wisdom and courtesy. In my nine years as vice-chancellor of City I never heard a single word of criticism of him — unprecedented in my experience. He was also very supportive in all the changes we had to make to the university in order to return it to the top rank of higher education. It was a great privilege and pleasure to be a colleague of Ludwik.

Thomas Lehner writes: Your obituary of Ludwik Finkelstein presents the life and horrendous childhood of a man who I was lucky to count as a good friend. Despite losing a childhood and normal education, Ludwik came through it with grace, modesty and considerable intellectual achievements. His knowledge and memory were astonishing, consistently being able to quote verbatim in several languages a point he wished to make, giving his contribution instant authority. It is remarkable that after all his suffering he was able to reconcile science with religion. With Ludwik Finkelstein passing away goes a history of endurance of men’s evil actions and the capacity to overcome the pain by being a good, honest and wise man.