Obituary – Dr R F Simmons 1929-2016

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-22-44-47Bob Simmons, who died on 24 June 2016, was the only child of Ethel and Ernie Simmons who ran the newsagents on Western Road in Mitcham, Surrey. Apart from a short period when he was evacuated to Weston-super-Mare in the early part of the war, he lived there until leaving to study chemistry at the University of Hull, for both his first degree and a PhD. As Hull was then a University College of London University he was awarded London degrees. He also made many friends there, two of whom were very important in his life – Doreen (Dorry) Wilkinson whom he married in 1954 and Roy Baldwin, his PhD supervisor – and played rugby, cricket and tennis. Shared interests with Dorry, as well as tennis, were their strong Christian faiths and their active work with scouts and guides. Their first child, Paul, was born in 1957, followed by John and Anne. Sadly Dorry died in 1974 after which Bob devotedly raised their children. His PhD topic was on the effects of trace amounts of hydrocarbons such as ethane on the explosion limits of hydrogen and oxygen. The original idea for this came from Roy’s wartime work at the Aeroengine Laboratory at the Thornton Research Centre seeking inhibitors to diminish exhaust flames from aircraft engines so planes were less easily detected. This topic, where Bob was one of the first investigators, was later developed by Roy alongside Ray Walker to be a prolific source of precise kinetic rate data and also one of the main themes of Bob’s continuing research work.

Leaving Hull in 1954 as a married man he joined a group led by the eminent combustion scientist Hans Wolfhard at the Rocket Propulsion Department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Westcott in Buckinghamshire. His work here was of diffusion flames including determination of limiting oxygen levels for stability, and also of the effect of organo-halide additives on pre-mixed flames. These investigations became a second theme of research.

In 1958 Bob and Dorry moved to Manchester when Bob was appointed to the academic staff of the Manchester College of Science and Technology, the separately funded Faculty of Technology of the University of Manchester. With RN Haszeldine appointed as Professor of Chemistry one year earlier the Dept of Chemistry was at the start of a remarkable 10 year period of growth in numbers of undergraduates, research students and staff. Haszeldine was a prolific worker, raising funds and recruiting research students to develop his interests in fluorine and silicon chemistry. After formulating new compounds often by new reaction routes he needed the help of expert kineticists to unravel the mechanisms and Bob turned his hand to this. This became the third theme of Bob’s research.

By the late1960s MCST had become UMIST – the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology – and the Department of Chemistry had a new building where Bob had an office onthe 11th floor. In 1963 the first Professor of Physical Chemistry was appointed – Sandy Ashmore -with research interests that complemented Bob’s and led to the presence of a strong reaction kinetics group. This was when I first met Bob and we immediately received friendship, guidance and hospitality from him and Dorry. Throughout his time at MCST/UMIST Bob supervised a stream of PhD students in each of the three areas he had become involved in with combustion chemistry and flame studies being his preferred areas.

Bob’s publications also fall into three groups. The Haszeldine related work mainly appeared in Journals of the Chemical Society including Transactions of the Faraday Society, J Chem Soc, andChemical Communications. The flame studies appeared mostly in the journal Combustion andFlame whilst the combustion related kinetic studies were usually in Proceedings of the biennialInternational Symposia on Combustion starting with the 5th Symposium in 1954 in Pittsburgh and extending to the 22nd Symposium in 1988 in Seattle. Bob was involved at the very start of the journal Combustion and Flame with a joint paper with Wolfhard in Vol.1 in 1954; the author list from that volume is a veritable rollcall of eminent combustion scientists of that period. A further link to Combustion and Flame came later when Bob joined the editorial team and applied his wide understanding of the subject to eliciting reviewers for the submitted papers and his judgement to improving and selecting them for publication.

Naturally he sought external funding for the research work. An early source for oxidation studies was the US Air Force for work which related to rocket developments. This meant attending annual contractor meetings in the USA, sometimes flying out on military transports. Another link was Associated Octel for fundamental work on the kinetics of lead antiknock agents in flames and on the fate of the lead after combustion. Bob was very good at establishing links with scientistsoutside academia with several beneficial consequences including a period of study leave spent between the Fire Research Station and the Explosion Hazards group at ICI Mond and a novel 2nd year undergraduate course on safety including lecturers from the Fire Research Station and fromthe Central Toxicology Labs of ICI. From the late 1960s to 1990 he was co-organiser of an annualseries of post-graduate courses that ran at UMIST on the theme “Safety in the Chemical Industry”. Their success depended on recruitment of expert speakers on safety matters from industry, fromconsultancies and from the HSE. A key topic in this series was on HAZOP and HAZAN, twotechniques developed in ICI in the 1960s. Trevor Kletz, then safety adviser ICI Petrochemicals, invited us to run a public course in order to widen the use of these techniques; the ICI team provided the speakers and materials at the first course. It was an immediate success and so was repeated each year but, as the ICI support had to be reduced, we took over much of the presentation work alongside Bert Lawley from the original ICI team. This led to requests for in company training courses in HAZOP and so, as Bob approached retirement in 1991, S&T Consultants Ltd was set up in order to continue this work. As well as providing training courses for over 50 different companies in the UK and abroad the public training courses continued in association with the Institution of Chemical Engineers. Bob also worked as a HAZOP team leader showing that an academic scientist could fully understand and rigorously question the working of an industrial operation.

After Bob finally retired in the late 1990s he continued with all the other activities he cared for – hisfamily, the church, his garden and home, and travelling. He was a kind man, always helpful, generous, patient and good humoured. He is mourned by, and remembered with love and affectionby his family – Paul, John and Anne, their partners and their children – and by many close friends.

Brian Tyler – colleague, co-worker and friend.