Remembering Dr Hiralal Patel (1919-2021)


Dr Hiralal Patel

Dr Hiralal Patel (Mechanical Engineering 1941, PhD Aeronautics 1945)

Dr Hiralal Patel, a much-loved and highly respected member of the alumni community in India, died in August 2021 at the age of 101.

In the late 1930s, Hiru Patel undertook the long journey on foot, by plane and by boat from India to London, where he began his seven years at Imperial with study for an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. He later completed a PhD in Aeronautics and his thesis developed our understanding of ‘flutter’. Flutter refers to the unstable oscillation that occurs on surfaces such as the wing of an aircraft during flight.

Accurate modelling of flutter remains a challenge for aeronautical engineers today and is a particular problem in transonic and supersonic flight. It’s an area of research that will be explored further in a new wind tunnel for high-speed air flow research that is being built at Imperial thanks to a generous gift made by his family in Dr Patel’s honour. 

Dr Patel remained a proud and passionate Imperial alumnus throughout his life and regularly attended events in Mumbai to meet with the College’s senior leadership team, fellow alumni and current and future students. In 2016, Imperial’s President Alice Gast presented Dr Patel with a hardbound copy of his original PhD thesis from 1945. 

Dr Hiralal Patel speaking at an alumni event in 2018
Dr Hiralal Patel speaking at an alumni event in 2018

In 2018, aged 99, Dr Patel attended a reception for alumni and friends in Mumbai where he inspired guests with a moving speech about the College, concluding:

“I am sure that through Imperial's White City Campus and by harnessing different developments that have taken place in digital and artificial intelligence…Imperial will continue to be one of the leading institutions in the world and I’m proud to be a member.”

Young alumni present at the event spoke of how inspiring they had found Dr Patel, and how much they appreciated his 60-year perspective on the alumni community.

Hiru Patel with President Alice Gast
Dr Hiru Patel with President Alice Gast in Mumbai

Dr Patel’s warmth and dedication left a lasting impression on all who met him. President Alice Gast expressed her sadness at the news of his death, recalling the many times she had met Dr Patel:

"I will always remember his infectious smile and how proud he was to be an Imperial alumnus. Hiru vividly recalled his time at Imperial, his interesting research, and how he would run back to campus in the middle of the night to check on his experiment after sheltering during air raids. His dedication to his research, his family, his country and his friends was an inspiration to all."

Embracing Sir Keith O'Nions
Hiru with Sir Keith O'Nions, former President and Rector of Imperial

Dr Patel also met former President and Rector, Sir Keith O'Nions on many occasions, and they are pictured above, reuniting at an event in 2014. Sir Keith commented, "I share in the tributes paid to Hiralal and in the wonderful legacy that he leaves."

Surrounded by alumni at an event
Hiru, surrounded by fellow alumni and Nicola Pogson, Director of Alumni Relations, at an event in Mumbai in 2016

A remarkable life: a family's perspective

Dr Patel is survived by his three children, Sanjay, Geeta and Sunil, who have shared their own recollections of their father’s life and achievements:

"Hiru Patel started from humble beginnings in the village of Danilimada near Ahmedabad where he completed his schooling. He left India at the age of 18 in 1938 to study at Imperial College in London, where in the middle of the bombings of World War II, he obtained his Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering and Masters and Doctorate in Aeronautical Engineering in 1945 just as the war ended. He remained to the end a devoted alumnus of Imperial.

"Hiru chose to return to India after his studies and started his illustrious career in plastics with Bakelite Xylonite UK, the world pioneer in the first plastics materials. Bakelite commissioned him to establish a joint venture manufacturing operation under the name of Bakelite Hylam Limited in 1969, which he headed as Managing Director till 1974. He moved to Union Carbide India when it took over Bakelite, as Director on the Board for Corporate Strategic Development, from where he retired in 1977. Following this, Hiru consulted for numerous companies in the plastics industry with his wealth of experience and helped set up Interplex India Pvt Ltd with his son Sunil.

"With his keen drive to develop and promote the plastics industry, he became founder member of Plexcouncil in 1955 and three times its Chairman and led its first overseas event organized at Interplas London in 1963. He was one of the founder governors of CIPET Madras and was also the founder member of Indian Plastics Institute in 1985. He led numerous delegations to Europe and Africa throughout his tenure for all these organizations and was instrumental in his advocacy for this industry globally.

"He and his lovely wife Shakuntala (who came from Delhi and was a classical painter but sadly predeceased him in 2007) were proud and blessed to have three children, Geeta, Sunil and Sanjay. They were educated at leading schools and universities due to their support and encouragement, including Eton College, Harvard, Stanford, Wellesley, Columbia and the University of Chicago. Geeta is a tenured Professor at the University of Virginia, Sunil followed in his father’s footsteps to return to India and promoted Interplex, a leading eco-friendly recyclable biopolymer platform and Sanjay is one of the leading figures in private equity globally, having worked at Goldman Sachs private equity for many years and for the last decade at Apollo Management, where he currently serves as Chairman International. Hiru leaves behind the three spouses of his children - Kath, Neena and Leslie - and three wonderful grandchildren - Alisha, India and Anuraj - all of whom plan to carry on his remarkable legacy.

"An avid photographer, a keen golfer, a classical singer and a globe trotter who went around the world seven times with Shakuntala, Hiru lived through the candle lit nights of the early 1900s to the technology era of 2020s.

"He helped push boundaries of technology and leaves an indelible impact on all those whose lives he touched with his indomitable spirit, intense curiosity and zest for life."

Dr Hiru Patel at an alumni event in 2018
Dr Hiru Patel at an alumni event in 2018


Jenn Rowater

Jenn Rowater

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