SU Faculty of Engineering pays tribute to Prof. Von Backström (14/2/1945 – 21/4/2021)

[Article by Nane Zietsman]

The Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University mourns the passing of Senior Researcher and Emeritus Professor, Prof Theo von Backström on Wednesday, 21 April 2021. Prof. Von Backström was a celebrated academic and prolific researcher in the fields of Fluid Mechanics and Thermodynamics, Turbomachinery and Renewable Energy.

He graduated from the University of Pretoria with a B.Sc.Eng. (Mech) cum laude in 1967 whereafter he completed his M.Sc.Eng. (Mech.) part-time in 1971 while serving as a pilot in 4 Squadron (Citizen’s Force) in the South African Air Force, achieving the rank of Captain. Prof. Von Backström continued his studies at Stellenbosch University where he received his Ph.D. (Mech Eng) in 1980 and D.Eng. in 2012. Prof. Von Backström played an important role in turbomachinery development in South Africa in the 1980s. He was the lead engineer for designing numerous axial flow compressors for South Africa’s uranium enrichment programmes and also designed the compressor for the Apartment engine, a small gas turbine engine developed for target drones.

He served as Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering (1986, 1992, 1996 – 1998, 2001 – 2002) and taught Introductory Machine Design, Fluid Mechanics, Fluid Machinery, Aerodynamics, Energy Systems and Environmental Engineering to many of our alumni over his long career at Stellenbosch. Prof. Von Backström also taught postgraduate modules such as Gas Dynamics, Aircraft Propulsion, Advanced Fluid Mechanics and Hydropower systems. He has acted as a promoter for 18 Ph.D. students and supervisor for 58 Masters students and was considered as one of the best postgraduate supervisors in the faculty because of his compassion and expert, personal guidance of his students’ research. Apart from being a teacher, Prof. Von Backström (B-rated researcher) was also a widely published and cited researcher with his work receiving both national and international recognition and praise.

Prof. Von Backström’s colleagues regard him as a giant of engineering academia in South Africa. He was vastly knowledgeable in the energy and turbomachinery fields and prolific in his research output. He is fondly remembered by his former student, Dr Mike Brooks, as a wonderful teacher and supervisor who was uncompromising on quality but also kind, patient, humble, generous with his time and the perfect example of what an academic should be.

Prof. Johan van der Spuy adds to Prof. Von Backström’s academic praise by calling him a remarkable engineer with a unique ability to think out of the box. “He could estimate the pressure ratio of a compressor by simply looking at its cross-section. He could do isentropic calculations in his head quicker than the time it took me to take out my calculator!” Prof. Johan van der Spuy further regards him as being very down-to-earth. “Often when meeting someone with “I am from Stellenbosch University”, it would be met with “Oh, and how is Theo von Backström doing?” Despite this, he remained unbelievably humble. His discussions on flying Harvards and driving his old Land Cruiser will be sorely missed.”

Mr Cobus Zietsman, Laboratory Manager, Department Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, who has worked with Prof. Von Backström for 36 years, also describes him as extremely hardworking, diligent and humble person. “He was an expert in his subject field and regarded his work more than just a career; he enjoyed it so much – it became his hobby.” To Mr Zietsman, Prof. Von Backström was not only a colleague but also a friend and travel companion. “He loved nature and the outdoors. He always made time to go camping and looked forward to touring through our neighbouring countries, discussing the technical difficulties encountered during the day around the campfire with a glass of red wine. He appreciated the little things in life.” According to Mr Zietsman there is no way to summarise Prof. Von Backström other than “being a true gentleman”.

The Dean, Prof. Wikus van Niekerk, remarks that he has known Prof von Backström from 1985, when he was an undergraduate student in his Fluid Dynamics class and later as a valued colleague.  “Theo von Backström will be remembered as one of the giants of the Faculty of Engineering with his association that spanned over nearly four decades.”  He adds that Prof. Von Backström’s legacy will remain within the corridors of the Engineering Faculty as well as in the hearts of those many students and colleagues who were privileged enough to have crossed paths with him. He will be dearly missed by students, friends, relatives, family and colleagues alike.

Photograph: Prof Theo von Backström