Herbert Eisner: Physicist with specialist expertise in fires and explosions

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The Independent Online

Herbert Eisner was for many years the director of the Safety in Mines Research Establishment in Buxton, Derbyshire. As a physicist with expertise on explosions in confined spaces, he was instrumental in developing the use of high-expansion foam for extinguishing fires in mines and he headed the Health and Safety Executive's flame and explosion laboratory. After the King's Cross fire in 1987 he served on the inquiry panel; and he appeared on TV as a commentator regarding this disaster and the later Channel Tunnel fire. He was also the author of several plays and stories.

Herbert Eisner was born in 1921 in Berlin into a cultured Jewish family. His maternal grandfather founded Germany first department store, Grand Bazaar in Frankfurt, and had counted among his card-playing companions Richard Strauss. The family fortune was swallowed by inflation after the First World War, but artistic contacts remained strong: among the knees on which Eisner was dandled were those of Bertolt Brecht, a family friend. His aunt, Lotte Eisner, was a cinema critic specialising in German Expressionism; she became a co-founder of the Cinémathèque Fran-çaise in Paris, and Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog dedicated films to her.

Eisner recalled seeing Goebbels hobbling to work; life became difficult after the Nazis came to power in 1933. In 1936 the persecution of the Jews was apparently stalled for two weeks while the eyes of the world were on Berlin for the Olympic Games. The Eisners went to the stadium, where they witnessed Jesse Owens winning, though Herbert was most excited by seeing the Japanese marathon runners' new split-toe shoes. Hitler was present, and when he walked into the stadium Eisner's mother refused to stand up, citing a "bad knee" as her excuse when challenged by a neighbour.

Eisner and his younger brother were sent to school abroad, Stephan to Paris, and Herbert, then aged 15, to a boarding school in Britain, Buxton College, which had a record of taking in Jewish refugees from Germany.

Eisner's parents left Berlin in 1939 and settled in London. He completed his schooling, but on the outbreak of war he was interned on the Isle of Man. After release he joined the British army and eventually became a staff sergeant. To play down his origins he changed his name to Evans; his fellow soldiers nicknamed him "Taffy", despite his strong accent. He was posted to India and spent the rest of the war there, mostly repairing tanks. During one period of leave he stayed in Cochin, meeting the Keralan town's Jewish community. When his son visited two years ago, surviving members of that community told him they remembered his father reciting poetry after dinner.

Eisner studied physics at Nottingham University, where he met Gisela Spanglet. Also a refugee from Berlin, she had come to Britain on the Kindertransport and had lost most of her family in the Holocaust. They were married in 1948 and in 1951 moved to Buxton, Eisner joining the SMRE, where he stayed until 1981. They had four children: David, a professor of physiology at Manchester University; Thomas, a violinist in the London Philharmonic Orchestra; Clare, a GP; and Harriet, a trade union international officer.

Eisner was also an accomplished writer. In 1951 he entered The Observer's Christmas short-story competition and came second; first prize went to Muriel Spark. He published achildren's book, The Monster Plant (1974), and in the 1960s wrote several plays for Radio 4. In 1963 his play The Reading Room was shown on ITV, starring a young Susan Hampshire. Several years ago he wrote his memoirs, but as a novel, changing names. He told his family that 95 per cent of it was true – but never revealed which five per cent was invented.

Eisner seems to have been blessed with good luck all his life. Having escaped the Nazis, and having seen no active conflict during his military years, he later survived a road accident outside his home in Buxton. He was knocked down and taken to hospital, concussed. When he came round, the doctor introduced himself as Dr Moriarty. "I'm Sherlock Holmes," quipped the barely conscious patient.

Herbert had a ready sense of humour and was always peaceable, modest and self-effacing. His motto was "To thine own self be true".

Jessica Duchen

Herbert Sigmund Eisner, physicist: born Berlin 23 June 1921; married 1948 Gisela Spanglet (two sons, two daughters); died Harrogate 28 June 2011.