Obituary: Professor Duncan Dowson, engineering scientist

Professor Duncan Dowson, who has died at 91, was a distinguished engineer and engineering scientist who worked with the medical community in developing the understanding and use of prosthetic joints.

Prof Duncan Dowson

His 70-year association with Leeds University, as student, staff member and in retirement, saw him become a respected authority on the study of natural and artificial joints. He was elected a Fellow of both The Royal Academy of Engineering and The Royal Society of London.

Duncan Dowson was born at Kirkbymoorside and raised in the North Yorkshire Moors. After gaining his High School Certificate in 1947 at Lady Lumley’s Grammar in Pickering, he studied in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Leeds University, gaining his first degree in 1950.

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His postgraduate study, also at Leeds, led to the award of his doctorate in 1952. After a two-year period with the Sir WG Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft Company, he returned to Leeds as a lecturer, and remained there for the rest of his working life.

In 1964, he was a member of the working party established by the Education Minister, Lord Bowden, to examine the science of friction, lubrication, and wear. The group promoted the adoption of the word Tribology to define and draw attention to its importance.

Prof Dowson became recognised as one of the world’s leading practitioners of the subject, and his research made an outstanding intellectual contribution to its advancement. In the late 1950s, with his colleague Gordon Higginson, he published seminal papers identifying the crucial factors influencing the lubrication of components such as gears, rolling element bearings and cams and followers. It enabled a significant increase in life and reliability for such machine elements.

Around 1970, he began his research studies of piston ring lubrication, making a significant contribution to the understanding of the rings in internal combustion engines and leading to improvements in design.

But it was his studies of bioengineering in natural and artificial joints that made him best known in the wider community. From its initiation in the 1960s, his engineering science studies in the field were carried out at hospitals in Leeds and elsewhere, and he developed an international recognition for his elucidation of the workings of human joints.

He wrote a comprehensive reference book, The History of Tribology, which explored the subject from the beginning of civilisation to the late 20th century.

Prof Dowson also took on governmental work and research roles for the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council and maintained a long involvement with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers for whom he was President in 1992-93. He was appointed CBE in 1989, and his home town of Kirkbymoorside conferred an honorary citizenship upon him in 2008.

He is survived by his wife, Mabel, elder son David Guy and an extended family. His younger son, Stephen Paul, predeceased him.