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walter kellermann

Dr Ernst Walter Kellermann, DrPhil, PhD, FInstP

Dr Walter Kellermann, former Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physics, died on 15 November 2012.

Born in Berlin in 1915, Walter Kellermann attended grammar school in the city but was then among the first students to be excluded from the University of Berlin under the policies of the Hitler regime.  He went on to study mathematics and physics at the University of Vienna, where he was awarded a DrPhil degree in 1937, primarily for his experimental work on photoelectric effect in crystals.  He then managed to secure support to enable him to become a research student under Professor Max Born, who, having left Germany in 1934, had been appointed to a Chair in Edinburgh.  In Edinburgh, Dr Kellermann worked on an important scientific problem in the theory of solids: the lattice vibrations of sodium chloride crystals.  He was awarded his PhD in 1939.  He set out his findings in two seminal publications in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, which appeared in 1940 and 1941 respectively.  These papers became classics in the field and marked a new level of understanding of the whole subject. 

In 1941, Walter Kellermann obtained a lectureship at the University of Southampton, where his teaching included intensive courses on radiotechnology.  During this time, his research interests moved increasingly towards nuclear physics, for which he had initially developed an affinity during his early training at the Viennese Radium Research Institute.  Wartime conditions limited the extent to which he could pursue his resurrected research ambitions but he was able to begin some experimental work in the field of cosmic rays (high-energy particles originating in outer space).  In order to give himself more opportunity to pursue this research, he took the brave step of resigning from his lectureship at Southampton in 1946 in favour of a temporary research appointment at the University of Manchester working alongside Professor (later Lord) Blackett, FRS.  After a successful study of the absorption of low energy cosmic-ray muons, he moved into what was to be his long-term specialisation – cosmic-ray shower structure, particularly of the complex core region. 

Appointed to a lectureship at Leeds in 1949, Walter Kellermann was responsible for starting experimental research on cosmic rays within the University.  It was a field of research in which the University went on to acquire an international reputation.  He himself greatly extended his work on cosmic-ray shower structure and time effects; one of his achievements was to develop a ‘core-detector’ which was to prove invaluable in later investigations.  He took part in the initiation of the Department’s Haverah Park cosmic ray project.  Although not part of the main project team, he worked in effective association with it, a number of his pioneering ideas providing the catalyst for more detailed and elaborate investigations.  Later in his career, Dr Kellermann made a major contribution to the study of the high energy effect of cosmic rays at sea level.  He was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1962.

In tandem with his research and teaching responsibilities, Dr Kellermann took a wide and lively interest in University affairs generally.  He served on both the Senate and the Council, and also on a range of major committees, including, for many years, the Library Committee and its associated sub-committees.  His concise interventions in debate were invariably perceptive and reflected his breath of intellect and cosmopolitan perspective.  To his friends, he was an interesting and often amusing conversationalist.  He was an effective and helpful Departmental Librarian within Physics.  He was a strong supporter of the Association of University Teachers (AUT).  Externally, he took on a significant role in the supervision and organisation of the work of the Inspectors of the Joint Matriculation Board (JMB) examinations over a wide area.  He was also prominent in the Reform Jewish community within Leeds. 

Walter Kellermann retired from his post in 1980, moving to London to be closer to his family and to enjoy with his wife the cultural delights of the capital.  He was an outspoken advocate of the preservation of science in the face of funding cuts in the 1980s.  In 2010, he published an eBook, A Physicist’s Labour in War and Peace: Memoirs 1933 -1999.

Dr Kellermann is survived by his wife, Marcelle, a member of the French Resistance during the Second World War, daughters Judith and Barbara (the latter the actress Barbara Kellermann), son Clive and three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

The funeral took place on 18 November.

A personal recollection of Dr Kellermann by Emeritus Professor Alan Watson, FRS, for many years a friend and colleague, has been published in the ‘Other Lives’ section of The Guardian’s website and is reproduced below:

"My friend and former colleague Walter Kellermann, who has died aged 97, was among the first students to be excluded from Berlin University under Adolf Hitler's regime. As a German Jew, he again experienced antisemitism when he completed his DPhil in Vienna.

The son of a rabbi, Walter arrived in Britain in 1937 to work with Max Born, a professor at Edinburgh University, and shared a desk with Klaus Fuchs in Born's crowded office. Walter soon uncovered an error in one of Born's famous papers. In his autobiography, A Physicist's Labour in War and Peace, Walter related Born's immediate negative reaction and generous later retraction. I recall being told, on joining Leeds University in 1964, that this paper of Walter's was the most cited of any written by those then in the department.

Walter became a lecturer at Leeds in 1949, but only after some adventures. In 1940 his work in Edinburgh was interrupted as he, along with many other German nationals, was interned as an "enemy alien" and shipped to Canada. Conditions there were so appalling that the internees went on hunger strike – an experience that led to Walter's long interest in politics.

In 1941 he returned to Britain and took a temporary lectureship in physics at the University College of Southampton. For a time he was the local secretary of the Association of Scientific Workers trade union. Walter had an interest in cosmic-ray physics, which he developed later in Manchester and in Leeds. He made important contributions to this field and was an active member of the Haverah Park experiment, a cosmic-ray air shower detection array on the Pennines.

In 1948 Walter married the beautiful and elegant Marcelle, who had been a member of the French resistance. Their long and happy marriage was filled with joint projects and interests. They played a major role in developing the small Reform synagogue in Leeds, which started in the 1940s. Walter was chair of the fundraising committee and led successful efforts to find land for a Reform cemetery.

His political work continued after he retired and moved to London, where he took an active part in the Fabian Society. Walter was an entertaining companion with broad interests and strong opinions on politics, food and the arts. He never lost his passion for physics and his energy and thirst for knowledge never ceased to amaze me; just four months before his death, we discussed at length my latest paper. It was a privilege to be a friend of such a rare and talented man."