Professor Roger Ainsworth

Elected: 2017

Area(s): Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine & Mathematics

Specialist Subject(s): Engineering - Mechanical, Fluid Mechanics

Master of St Catherine’s College, Pro-Vice Chancellor, and Professor of Engineering Science, University of Oxford


Roger Ainsworth, who died in Oxford on February 23rd, was, at his death, the longest-serving Head of House in post in the University. He had led his College, St Catherine’s, since 2002 with an inimitable mix of conviviality and steel, making it his business to foster close and supportive relations with Fellows, of course, but also with graduate and undergraduate students and, far from universally among those in his position, with the College staff. He was an outstanding Chairman of the Governing Body, combining good humour with even better discipline, and would be visibly pleased if meetings broke the record for expeditiousness. This was, of course, only achieved by careful planning, and by the expert transmission of the work of committees to the plenary debate. He had most recently inaugurated the construction of a new Graduate Centre, compatible with the existing Grade I buildings in the central part of the College (designed by Arne Jacobsen). This, along with other initiatives that he oversaw, was largely made possible by his excellent rapport with the whole range of College benefactors, with alumni, of course, but also with such generous individuals and foundations as The Cameron Mackintosh Foundation and The Leathersellers’ Company.

He had combined this achievement, which witnessed both the growth of the College and its achievement of academic excellence, with any number of other commitments. Following his doctorate, and a period working with Rolls Royce and at Harwell, he was elected a Fellow in Engineering Science and University Lecturer in 1985, before being promoted to Professor in 1998. His involvement in the administration of the University began with his appointment as Senior Proctor in 1998-9. Thereafter he served as a Delegate of the University Press (1999-2009), a member of Council (2002-5) and of the Finance Committee (2001-9), before becoming a Pro-Vice-Chancellor in 2003. Beyond the University his range of commitments was as varied as it was daunting, and included acting as Chairman of the Oxford Preservation Trust (from 2009), the Voltaire Foundation (2015-18) and as a Governor of Abingdon School (1997-2010) and Governor (from 2004) and then Chairman of Governors of the Dragon School (from 2015). His firm Anglican faith also found expression in his work as a Churchwarden of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin.

Nonetheless, his primary commitment was to his College, in its diversity of activities (sporting, theatrical and social, as well as purely academic) and he regularly brought guests to dinner, usually following a generous reception in the Lodgings in which he was assiduous in involving other Fellow and their guests. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 2004, a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales in 2017, and appointed a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog (Denmark) in 2006. His research pioneered the measurement of the unsteady flows within jet engines. A particularly astonishing feat was the development of a method of mounting silicon piezoresistive pressure sensors on the surface of turbine blades. These sensors had to operate under centrifugal accelerations of tens of thousands of g and were able to measure the blade surface pressure hundreds of thousands of times a second. The method was widely adopted by companies such as Rolls-Royce and international research institutes such as the German Aerospace Centre (DLR).

Roger William Ainsworth was born in Lancaster in 1951, the son of Harold and Mary Ainsworth. He married Sarah née Pilkington in 1978, and they had three children: Tom, a philosophy teacher in Oxford, Emily, a primary school teacher, also in Oxford, and Harriet, a lawyer in London. He was educated at Lancaster Royal Grammar School and at Jesus College, Oxford, where he gained a First Class degree in Engineering Science in 1973, and went on to take his DPhil in 1976. He was made an Honorary Fellow there in 2002. These two affiliations began a lifelong affection for his Lancastrian roots, and for his Welsh ancestry (his mother came from a Welsh-speaking farming family in Carmarthenshire), and indeed he had recently bought a house in St David’s to which he was intending to retire after he stepped down as Master at the end of 2019.

Roger was an easily recognizable figure in Oxford, usually riding through on his sit-up-and-beg bicycle or, maybe more dangerously, driving his beloved E-type Jaguar. His humour and conviviality were there to the end. A colleague recalls visiting him in hospital on the day before he was to be transferred to the hospice where he died. Roger did not fail to point out that “at least in the hospice there is a drinks trolley”. He died the following day, having duly procured his last gin and tonic.

Prepared by Professor Richard Parish (Emertius Fellow St Catherine’s College)