Professor Keith Miller

Explorer and fatigue engineer

Tuesday 06 June 2006 00:00

Keith John Miller, mechanical engineer, explorer and mountaineer: born Blackburn, Lancashire 12 January 1932; Lecturer, Queen Mary College, London 1963-68; Lecturer in Engineering, Cambridge University 1968-77; Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge 1970-77; Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Sheffield University 1977-97 (Emeritus), Head of Department 1982-87, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering 1987-89; married 1955 Barbara Tomlinson (three daughters; marriage dissolved 1982), 1982 Catherine Corbett; died Sheffield 26 May 2006.

Keith Miller travelled far from his humble origins in Blackburn, Lancashire, to become a mechanical engineer of world standing and a remarkable explorer and mountaineer. Along his journey he became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, a Founder's Gold Medallist of the Royal Geographical Society and a Foreign Member of the Russian Academy of Science, as well as winning countless other awards and honours.

He left Blackburn Grammar School at the age of 16 for an apprenticeship with Leyland Motors during which he took ONC and HNC evening courses, leading to a scholarship to read Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College, London. There he blossomed. He played tennis and football at a high level, became president of the Students' Union, got married and gained a First at a time when this was a considerable accolade.

In 1957 he initiated the Imperial College expedition to the Karakoram, demonstrating the tenacity and organising skills which became his trademark in his later career. The expedition nearly floundered after a delay in granting him a visa because he was suspected, erroneously, of having Communist sympathies. Miller enlisted the help of his local MP, Barbara Castle, and the visa appeared.

Eric Shipton, then going through a low period of his life after losing the leadership of the 1953 Everest expedition, was invited to be leader. Shipment of equipment and supplies was delayed because of the Suez crisis and, when they eventually arrived in Scardu, news came through of the deaths of Herman Buhl on Chogolisa and of Bob Downes on Masherbrum. Despite all this, some six weeks were spent in the area of the great Lolofond and Siachen glaciers, surveys were made and several peaks were climbed.

Miller began his academic career as a part-time evening class lecturer at Rugby College of Technology (1958-60), progressing to Amadu Bello University in Nigeria (1960-63), before his appointment as a Lecturer at Queen Mary College, London, where he combined his duties with a PhD in metal fatigue: the topic which would occupy the rest of his life.

He moved to a Lectureship in Engineering at Cambridge University in 1968, and began assembling the first of his several teams investigating many aspects of the fatigue problem. He was elected to a Fellowship at Trinity College in 1970, then in 1977 was appointed to a chair in Mechanical Engineering at Sheffield University, where he remained until his retirement in 1997. He served as Head of Department from 1982 until 1987, and as Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, 1987-89. The department was ripe for " change-management", jargon that was unknown to Miller. By dint of hard work, example and force of personality, he steered the department from mere teaching competence to become one of the leading centres of mechanical engineering in Britain, with a strong international reputation.

He established the interdisciplinary Structural Integrity Research Institute of the University of Sheffield (Sirius, not by coincidence the brightest star in the firmament) and founded the International Journal of Fatigue of Engineering Materials and Structures. He exercised full authority as editor-in-chief of his journal. No paper was submitted that was not substantially improved by his comments. Many international honours came his way, but latterly the awards of honorary degrees from Imperial and Sheffield gave him a particular satisfaction. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and as a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers delivered the John Player Lecture in both 1991 and 2001.

Throughout his academic career, Miller continued exploration. In 1968, he led the first of a series of expeditions to north-east Greenland, although he was badly injured after falling into a crevasse and had to be evacuated to Iceland by helicopter and Catalina flying-boat. Whilst at Cambridge he led six further expeditions to this area, introducing scores of undergraduates to the Arctic and launching many successful careers. He developed radio-echo sounding techniques for measuring the depth of ice in glaciers, and these he used on the Vatnajökull in Iceland in 1976-77. In 1975 he led a four-man team on the first north-south traverse of the Staunings Alps in Greenland; a hard and difficult journey of over 170 miles across isolated and heavily glaciated mountains.

But perhaps the crowning moment of his exploration was his leadership of the 1980 Royal Geographical Society International Karakoram Project. This was a huge international scientific expedition with teams from many disciplines and countries, including China and Pakistan. His account, Continents in Collision (1982), transmits the flavour of the venture and some of the background political rumblings. Miller was accused by the Russians of being an agent of the CIA, a neat counterpoint of his visa difficulties 23 years previously.

The extensive scientific results were published in two volumes following post-expedition conferences in Britain and Pakistan. In recognition of his prodigious work he was awarded the Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. His pleasure in the expedition was marred by the death of a close friend, Jim Bishop, who had been a member of the team that made the Staunings Alps traverse. This was the only fatality on Keith Miller's many expeditions.

The term "charismatic" is overused. However, Miller's lectures, talks and conversations defined this quality. Generations of undergraduates adored him; he filled public lecture halls to overflowing. His ability to transmit enthusiasm, it must be said sometimes at the expense of detail, was astonishing and inspiring. His neatness of presentation, stemming from his apprentice days, never deserted him. When I show his student laboratory notebooks to present-day undergraduates, they cannot believe it was all done by hand. All this came with some lovable quirks: he never learned to use a computer; neither did he seem to know how to look after a car, a strange omission for an engineer. Despite his organisation of Himalayan expeditions, the logistics of a simple trip to the Peak District or the Lakes often eluded him.

His life after (nominal) retirement was marred by ill-health. He underwent a quadruple heart bypass operation 10 years ago, and his love for walking in mountainous regions was curtailed; two years ago he was told he had a rare form of cancer of the blood. He was completing the final chapter of a magnum opus on fatigue right to the end, which came just two weeks after he had attended the final game of the season at his beloved Blackburn Rovers.

Roderick A. Smith

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