OBITUARIES : Professor Peter Benham

Roy Crawford
Wednesday 14 December 1994 00:02

Peter Philip Benham, mechanical and aeronautical engineer: born 12 August 1927; Professor of Engineering, Queen's University, Belfast 1970-89, Pro Vice-Chancellor 1986-89; married Sheelagh MacLaughlin (two daughters); died Hillsborough 14 Novembe r 1994.

Peter Benham was a distinguished engineer and academic, known internationally for his work on the strength of materials and the properties of plastics. Most of his career was spent in Queen's University, Belfast, where he rose to the position of senior Pro Vice-Chancellor - a post he held from1986 to his retirement five years ago.

Benham was educated at Hurstpierpoint College, Sussex. In 1945 he joined the RAF and three years later decided he would become an engineer. His place in mechanical engineering at Queen's University marked a turning point in his life. He graduated with a First Class honours degree, but perhaps more importantly came into contact with Professor Frederick Warnock. Years later they were to write a book, Mechanics of Solids and Structures (1965), which became a standard student text all over the world.

It was also while a student that he became enchanted by Northern Ireland and although he worked for a number of years as a stress calculator for Vickers Armstrong in Weybridge, Surrey, and then as a lecturer at Imperial College, London, he was happy to take up in 1963 a senior lectureship at Queen's University, where he remained until 1989.

Benham's research work, under the guidance of Sir Hugh Ford, was initially on the fatigue of metals before finding his niche in the fatigue of plastics. His research papers were widely published and are regularly cited. His talents as a lecturer were sought all over the world and he held visiting professorships in the Universities of Waterloo, in 1968-69, and of Auckland and Canterbury, in 1984.

During his early years at Queen's, engineering was still not considered a suitable subject for university study and it was Benham who helped to establish engineering and in particular mechanical engineering as a leading discipline in the university. He also saw through the creation of the Ashby Building - purpose-built accommodation for the engineering department which opened in 1965.

In 1976 he switched disciplines to become Head of Department in aeronautical engineering. This was at the time of a ``thousand cuts'' imposed on universities, when, as he later said, ``the role of head of department was gradually changing from the gentlemanly captain to the devious manager''. Only the very skilful could meet the challenge.

Above all, Benham loved teaching. His lectures were always meticulously prepared, skilfully delivered and well received. He had a tremendous rapport with students and understood their needs. A testimony to his teaching ability is his textbooks, which ha v e remained in the best-seller list in one of the most competitive areas of the technical book market for over 30 years.

Throughout a very full academic life he maintained a strong interest in sport, classical music (he had a large collection of recordings) and art. He was a founder member of the squash club at Queen's and played right up to his retirement.

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