During my undergraduate studies at Imperial College (1975- 1978) Prof Henry Sawistowski was the Deputy Head of the Department and coordinator of the undergraduate course. He took a leading role in lecturing to the students and, at a time when the need for academics to teach well in addition to being good researchers was not emphasised as much as it is now, was a truly inspirational teacher. Although Henry had a strong Polish accent, he had a wonderful grasp of the English language and was meticulous about grammatical precision and spelling, frequently correcting students in either their spoken or written work.
He was an excellent Lecturer and diligent on providing feedback and running seminars. Henry set great store in knowing every student personally and making himself available. He was very much grounded and tried to keep everybody’s feet on the ground. I remember well the survey at the end of the first term which contained a wide variety of questions, including the expected degree level to be obtained. I still recall with great clarity his feedback from the survey and when it came to degree expectations, he said that he was going to have to disappoint most of the students in the room as over 90% indicated they expected a first-class degree, and he pointed out that less than 20% would achieve that honour.
In Henry Sawistowski I saw a man who had faced many challenges and adapted extremely well, achieving distinctive success. He was a role model in terms of always trying to do his best with a clear focus on achieving mastery in his field. He was also the perfect complement to the Head of Department at the time, Professor Roger Sargent, a Chemical Engineer of huge standing with a world leading position in Process Systems Engineering and one of the founders of what is today known as the Royal Academy of Engineering. Henry together with Roger shaped several academics and students to secure their succession in the department, whilst also providing an excellent cohort of future leaders for both Imperial College as a whole and other universities as well.
Henry Sawistowski took a great interest in his students and provided very personal support and I think he was clear that, contrary to many indicators, the real product of a university and the greatest impact on society, commerce and the profession comes from its graduates and not the intellectual property that is often hotly contested, over protected and unrealistically too highly valued.
In my opinion it is vital to ensure that great inspirational teachers like Henry are not under recognised, under respected and above all undervalued.
If I look at the graduates emerging from this department during this period I see a very large number that have gone on to be well recognised leaders across academia, across government related organisations and across international business, not to mention the depth of leadership (Presidents, Vice Presidents etc.) associated with the Institution of Chemical Engineers. This is a powerful and substantive track record.
I was personally inspired by Henry, who gave me great confidence that chemical engineering was already, and in the future would be, of great value, and not only to me, but to society at large.
This story has been contributed by Past President Ian Shott