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In memoriam: Colin Lewis, optical scientist, innovator, and advocate

05 April 2013

Colin LewisColin Lewis, former scientific advisor for the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) in Northern Ireland and a visiting professor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and the University of Manchester, is mourned by family, friends, and colleagues following his death in late January. He was 69.

Dr. Lewis is particularly remembered among the SPIE community for his drive and support for the Optics and Photonics for Counterterrorism and Crime Fighting conference, part of the SPIE meeting in Europe on Security and Defence. An SPIE member, he served as conference chair and proceedings editor for that conference beginning in 2004, also chairing conferences on Optically Based Biological and Chemical Detection for Defence, serving as session chair, and authoring conference proceedings papers.

"His success in these forums is evident not only in the quality of the conference and proceedings, but in view of subsequent collaborative ventures that have developed between participants who attended the conference," said colleague Gari Owen, MOD science advisor.

"I started working with Colin around 1980 at the MOD establishment at Fort Halstead in Kent -- despite Colin having advised me not to go there when I met him during a job interview in 1975," Owen said. "We continued collaboration through our government careers and subsequently as consultants when we both retired. He went to the British embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1984 and I followed him in the same job in 1987, complete with the cowboy hat that he had persuaded me to buy when we visited North Texas State University in about 1985."

After graduating from the universities of Loughborough and Nottingham, Lewis held postdoctoral appointments in North America. He worked with the Nobel Laureate Lord George Porter at the Royal Institution.

He served in the Ministry of Defence in Northern Ireland during a critical period from 1987 to 1993, Owen said, noting that "his activities can perhaps best be described as beyond the call of duty. His efforts saved many lives and he was awarded the OBE for his contribution and leadership."

Lewis was described as a "tireless advocate" by a colleague at the MOD establishment at Colchester, following his time in Northern Ireland, who Lewis had helped to be sponsored for an external PhD -- one of many examples where Lewis supported his staff in developing their careers.

"I believe that the main characteristic that we all remember about Colin was his drive and determination," Owen said. "No obstacle -- particularly bureaucratic -- would prevent him in his quest to solve a problem, all of which had important implications and were required by customers in the real world. His catchphrase was, 'we need solutions, not problems'."

Perhaps the greatest tribute to the many innovative projects started by Lewis which have reached fruition is that his efforts have been so successful that the outcome is taken as much for granted by users as other devices such as mobile phones by the rest of us, Owen said. "Already, a piece of software has been named in his memory, and Sean Gong of Queen Mary University recently dedicated an important lecture to Colin's memory," he said. "His wisdom and opinions on a variety of topics reside in our memories."

He is survived by his wife, Pat; children, Katherine and David; and their families.