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In memoriam: University Professor Emeritus Bernard (Ben) Etkin

Members of the U of T community are mourning the loss of former U of T Engineering dean, renowned expert in aerodynamics and beloved mentor, University Professor Emeritus Bernard (Ben) Etkin (UTIAS), who died June 26, 2014.

Etkin led an accomplished career that spanned 50+ years of aeronautical research, consulting, teaching, and academic leadership. A graduate of the Faculty’s engineering physics program, Etkin joined the University of Toronto Department of Aeronautical Engineering in 1942, and helped Professor Gordon Patterson found the Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) in 1950.  He served as dean of the Faculty from 1973-1979.

Professor Etkin’s pioneering research on aerodynamic theory led to 11 patents and three widely used books on flight dynamics, one of which – Dynamics of Flight: Stability and Control – has been translated into many languages and, now in its third edition, is still cited around the world as one of the seminal texts in the industry.

One way that Etkin applied his groundbreaking research is through the invention of the “infrasizer.” Resembling a wind tunnel, it allows users to sort particles based on weight and resistance to airflow, as heavier particles fall before lighter ones. With this technology, Etkin founded a company called Infrasizer Ltd. that has aided in manufacturing across a variety of industries.

As an expert in aeronautics and astronautics, he contributed to the design and production of two glider aircraft, including the deHavilland Sparrow, and a number of Avro aircrafts, including the AVRO Arrow.

Etkin was also part of the UTIAS team that helped to rescue Apollo-13 when an in-flight explosion damaged the craft and the service module became crippled.  Etkin and the UTIAS team of professors performed crucial calculations on the correct pressure needed to separate the entry module from the damaged spacecraft which, ultimately, allowed the astronauts’ safe return.

Etkin’s contributions to his field have been recognized across Canada and around the world. He was a Founding Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute. He was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2003.

In addition to research, Etkin was also a renowned educator and valued mentor. Even during his time as dean of engineering, he continued to teach a first-year mechanics course, and colleagues said his impact on the lives and careers of aspiring engineers was immeasurable.

(At right: Etkin explains complex instrumentation to young visitors at the Institute for Aerospace Studies open house, 1973; photo courtesy University of Toronto Archives.)

“One of the greatest things about Ben [Etkin],” said Professor Gabriele D’Eleuterio (UTIAS), “was his skill as a teacher and mentor. He had an incredible ability to crystallize a thought and communicate it. He was a cherished mentor to many and he delighted in teaching and exploring science and engineering.”

Etkin’s passion for education also translated into many administrative changes in the Faculty. During his time as dean, he played integral roles both in changing the engineering curriculum from the “year system” to the “semester system,” and in introducing the M.Eng. degree. He also developed several laboratory and lecture courses, designed and managed the installation of the U of T subsonic wind tunnel, and made a strong effort to attract more female students into the profession.

In addition, he was an advocate of professional experience for engineering students and was pivotal in organizing a successful pilot program, which later became the Professional Experience Year (PEY), a program undertaken by nearly two thirds of undergraduate students today.

Even well into retirement, Etkin continued to inspire his colleagues and pursue research in areas both within his field and beyond, including global warming and climate change.

“Bernard Etkin will be remembered for his extraordinary contributions to the U of T community, the engineering profession and the world,” said Dean Cristina Amon. “On behalf of the Faculty, I send my deepest condolences to his family.”

Flags at the University of Toronto will be flown at half-mast on July 10 in honour of Professor Etkin.