Christopher Julian Hewitt, 1969–2019

Article by Alvin Nienow CEng FIChemE

AFTER a short illness, Chris Hewitt FIChemE died unexpectedly on 25 July, aged just 50 years old. In addition to his outstanding academic achievements, he will be remembered for his humour, generosity and energy; and for conversations until the wee hours of the morning (over a glass of red wine) on any topic at the many conferences at which he was an invited speaker.

Chris was born in Walsall in the West Midlands, UK, and attended the local state schools. His main interests at that time were sports, notably rugby and table-tennis to a high standard, and the outdoor life (Queens Sea Scout and Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award). In 1987, he went to Royal Holloway College to read biology, graduating in 1990 with a First. From there, he moved to University of Birmingham for a PhD in biochemical engineering, which he completed in 1993. After a post-doc in biology, Chris joined bioreactor specialist Applikon in order to obtain a mortgage and set up home with his teenage sweetheart, Sandra.

In 1996, he returned to Birmingham, again as a post-doc but in biochemical engineering, on a large EC project, “Bioprocess scale-up strategy based on integration of microbial physiology and fluid dynamics”. This project was masterminded by Professor Enfors from KTH Stockholm and involved many leading European academics. Chris applied flow cytometry to the study of bacterial populations in bioreactors at a time when the instrument at Birmingham was designed for much larger animal cells; hence, the challenges were immense. This development was a key to this very successful project and illustrative of Chris’s attitude in always challenging received wisdom. The paper summarising the project, with 32 authors, published in 2001, has now been cited ~400 times. This research established him as a leading young European biochemical engineer and his ‘work hard and play hard’ personality made him very popular too. Based on this success, Chris was appointed Lecturer (1999) and then Senior Lecturer (2004). During this time, he also made significant contributions to scale-down research for bioreactor scale-up using flow cytometry and cell sorting on such diverse topics as bio-remediation, bio-transformation, brewing and cell culture.

In 2006, Chris was invited to a Chair of Biological Engineering at Loughborough University where he was co-founder of the Centre for Biological Engineering and established the first EPSRC/MRC Doctoral Training Centre in Regenerative Medicine. This Centre rapidly established an international reputation for its graduates and research. Hewitt Group Seminars exemplified his approach, being very relaxed with much time also spent discussing hobbies. His own concerned the barbecuing of everything from spit-roasted goose for Christmas Dinner to “Coq-au-Can” (his own invention) – all ‘low and slow’. His group published 25 papers including, in 2013, the first paper on the culture and recovery of fully-functional human mesenchymal stem cells on microcarriers in a 5 L stirred bioreactor, the largest scale in the open literature at that time; and in 2013, he was awarded a DSc.

In November 2014, Chris was headhunted by Aston University to be Pro Vice-Chancellor and Executive Dean of the School of Life and Health Sciences. Here, he was particularly successful in creating a highly stimulating research and teaching environment, building on his strong academic and social skills, and notably helping the university move towards an integrated approach to medical sciences with physical sciences and bioengineering.

Chris was a committee member of IChemE’s BESIG from 2000 (Chairman 2009–2011) and became a Fellow of IChemE in 2009. From 2006, he was a member of the ESBES Working Party on Bioreactor Performance (Chairman from 2014) which runs the prestigious “Brac Course”; and a co-founder in 2013 of a similar international course on Regenerative Medicine Manufacturing. He was also a consultant for many companies worldwide. In recognition of these many activities, Chris was awarded IChemE’s Donald Medal in 2017; and in 2018, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the highest accolade for a UK engineer. Despite his many achievements, Chris was known for his down-to-earth approach, often travelling business class in flip-flops, shorts and T-shirt.

Outside academia, Chris maintained his love of sport and the outdoor life, particularly water sports, including completing the Round the Isle of Wight Yacht Race. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him both in the UK and abroad because he made life fun; and particularly by his wife, Sandra, his two teenage sons, Henry and Edward and his father, Bernard.

Article by Alvin Nienow CEng FIChemE

Emeritus Professor of Biochemical Engineering, University of Birmingham

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