25 September 2020 marks the birth centenary of Satish Dhawan, one of India’s most prominent aerospace engineers who drove research in fluid dynamics in the country, headed the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and was IISc’s longest-serving Director.
Born in Srinagar on 25 September 1920, Dhawan grew up in Lahore and Kashmir and studied an eclectic range of subjects in pre-Partition India and the US – he had Bachelor’s degrees in physics, mathematics and mechanical engineering, Master’s degrees in English literature and aerospace engineering, and a double PhD in mathematics and aerospace engineering. When he returned to India in 1951, he joined IISc’s Department of Aeronautical Engineering (later renamed the Department of Aerospace Engineering) and was made its chair in a few years. In 1963, he was appointed the Institute’s Director – its youngest ever – and over the next two decades, steered its growth and expansion in a number of fields including molecular biophysics, information processing, design technology, ecological sciences and more. During this period, IISc also set up a cell for Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas (ASTRA), now known as the Centre for Sustainable Technologies, and the Centre for Continuing Education, which offers a range of courses to people beyond the borders of the Institute, including working professionals.
Dhawan’s tenure as Director lasted until 1981, and during this period he balanced several demanding roles, including that of ISRO’s Chair from 1972 to 1984. He was also the Chair of the Research Council of the National Aerospace Laboratories, Chair of the Space Commission, Secretary to the Government of India in the Department of Space, and President of the Indian Academy of Sciences. Alongside his administrative positions, he continued to devote time to aerospace research, particularly on boundary layers.
At IISc, Dhawan is remembered fondly, not just as a skilled administrator and as someone who drove aerospace research in India, but also as someone who loved to work with his hands and build things from scratch, and as a kind and pleasant person who brought with him a unique energy and perspective that helped the Institute grow.