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Dr Yon Richard Mayhew, 1924-2013

Dr Yon Mayhew

Dr Yon Mayhew

17 February 2014

Dr Yon (‘John’) Mayhew, who taught in the Department of Mechanical Engineering for some 40 years, died in late 2013. Professor Robert Adams offers a tribute to an engineer who co-authored a highly influential textbook on engineering thermodynamics.

Yon (or John as he was known to colleagues and students) Mayhew taught in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Bristol from 1948 to 1987, and for some years afterwards on a part-time basis. Over a lifetime, academics write papers that a few hundreds of people read and give lectures to several thousand students. But Mayhew and his colleague Gordon Rogers reached many more scholars by writing a bestseller, Engineering Thermodynamics, Work, and Heat Transfer, the best-known and most influential textbook on engineering thermodynamics of its generation. First published in 1957, this book has sold over one million copies, which is astonishing for an academic text. The book was written for students, not just to impress professors, although it has a rigour and detail second to none. Nearly every engineering student knows ‘Rogers and Mayhew’, and it is still a recommended text in many universities. The book dragged thermodynamics from a mysterious science to being an engineer’s tool.

Mayhew’s parents and grandparents lived in Saratov on the Volga on the edge of what was called the German Volga ASS. Technically skilled Germans had been encouraged by the Tsars to settle in Russia and the Meyerowitz family had a meat canning factory, made glue, generated electricity, and ran the trams. By 1922, all these assets had been seized by the Bolsheviks, and father, an electrical engineer, took his family to Berlin where Yon was born in 1924. This was out of the frying pan and into the fire, as there was Jewish ancestry in the family. By 1934, even though Yon’s father, sister, and grandfather had been baptised as Lutherans, the Jewish blood spelt trouble and there was no prospect of Yon progressing to the Gymnasium. Having lost all their possessions in Saratov, and seeing danger ahead, Meyerovitz took his family to Palestine in 1934 and got a job in Tel Aviv. Yon completed his schooling, much of it in Hebrew, but he was set on doing a university degree in England, and both he and his elder sister Hedda took the appropriate external English exams, Hedda in Law and Yon in Engineering.

During World War Two, Palestine, having been under the British Mandate since 1922, saw an influx of British troops. Now chance took a fortunate turn. Hedda fell in love with a British Major, Leonard Kent, and they married in 1943, returning to England just as the war ended. Leonard was also a highly placed government scientist at Porton Down, and he persuaded Imperial College to take on Yon to read Mechanical Engineering, starting in 1945. Unfortunately, all the ships were full and Yon could not get a passage. Again fortune smiled: 1945 was Imperial’s centenary, and all the students were invited to a Ball and to meet the King and Queen at the Albert Hall. By waving his Royal invitation about, Yon got a boat and was able to start his course only a few weeks late. Needless to say, he graduated with a First.

He was offered a place to do a PhD at Imperial, but he had no right of residence so the best move was to find a job. Again, Hedda came to the rescue. She had seen a Lectureship advertised at Bristol and advised Yon to apply. This he did, and so started his academic career and his lifelong collaboration with Gordon Rogers which resulted in The Book.

Postwar England wasn’t always easy for immigrants who came from continental Europe. Prejudice was rife at this time, and John decided that it was best for him and any future family if he changed his name from Meyerowitz to the very English name of Mayhew, which he did in 1952. About this time, John was invited to be the sub-warden at Wills Hall, where he lived until, in 1957, he married Cora Lamboll whom he had met on a skiing holiday in Kitzbuhel. John said it wasn’t his skiing that impressed Cora, but that he had with him a catalogue about an exhibition on Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, indicating that he must be a man of high culture.

Apart from his many papers on thermofluids, John helped to bring about the conversion of British engineers from feet, pounds, and British Thermal Units to the SI (Systeme International) or metric system. He helped the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, of which he was a Fellow, to rewrite their Guide for Publishing Papers to give guidance to British authors as to how to convert to the new system. He desperately tried to persuade the decision-makers to take this chance to change from the kilogram as the basic unit of mass; he even tried to get the kilogram renamed as the Gaulle, after the then President of France. But armies of continental grocers would have none of it and Mayhew failed in his bid for rationalisation.

During the ‘Dirty jobs strike’ in 1970, the lower courtyard of the Engineering building  accumulated a lot of black refuse sacks containing food waste which began to smell and were attracting vermin. John collected two or three strong young lecturers to help shift these sacks into an empty room in the basement. While we were doing this, the University Socialist Society (SocSoc) got wind of what we were doing and came to stop us. Among various epithets, we were described as ‘fascists’. Having experienced fascism in reality as a Jewish boy in Berlin, John’s response was, to say the least, steamy, and the SocSoc crept away with their tails well and truly between their legs.

Although John had Jewish ancestry, he chose to be confirmed and married in the Christian church and brought up his own family in the Christian faith. At heart he believed that Christian teaching was essentially a civilising influence.

Yon Mayhew is survived by his wife Cora, his two sons Jeremy and Roger and his daughter Nicola. His son Nigel predeceased him.

A version of this obituary appeared in The Times on Thursday 13 February. Other obituaries have appeared in The Independent (25 December 2013)The Telegraph (26 November 2013), and The Financial Times (17 November 2013)

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