Obituary: Professor Pavel Novak

'Hydraulic to his backbone': the Czech engineer whose research spanned the Soviet era


The Czech-born hydraulic engineer Professor Pavel Novak, who has died aged 99, was internationally renowned in his field. He held professorships both in Prague and Newcastle, where he settled in 1968 after the Soviet army invaded the former Czechoslovakia.

The political turbulence of his times often interrupted his career, but Prof Novak published widely, winning international plaudits, despite travel bans by the Communist regime between 1954 and 1964. He was described as “hydraulic to his backbone.”

Pavel was born in Stribo, a small West Bohemian town, to Elsa and Rudolf Novak. Theirs was a liberal, Jewish, German-speaking household.

The family moved to Plzen (Western Czech Republic) where he learned Czech, attended local schools and celebrated his barmitzvah. When he was 17 the family moved again, to Prague. There, he finished his secondary education and enrolled in a civil engineering university course specialising in hydrodynamics and hydrology. With the rise of Nazism, his parents decided he should leave Prague and he took the last train to London at the end of March, 1939. But tragically his parents, sister and her family all perished in the Holocaust.

Prof Novak graduated from London University in civil engineering in 1941. He also served in the Home Guard and contributed to the war effort by interrogating German POWs. He became Assistant Engineer for the Trent Navigation Company in Nottingham, and then, in 1942, Assistant Lecturer at University College, Nottingham. He married Risa Elizabeth Maurer, a refugee from Vienna, on August 4, 1943.

At the end of the war, the young couple returned to Prague, where he obtained further doctorates. He became Deputy Director of the Water Research Institute in Prague, Director of the Institute of Hydrodynamics at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and, in 1967, Professor of Hydraulics at the Technical University of Prague.

But, with the Soviet invasion of 1968, Prof Novak emigrated for the third time, aged 50, and in Newcastle he became Professor of Civil and Hydraulic Engineering. He continued well into his 80s as an examiner and supervisor for UK and international research projects, acquiring professional fellowships on the way. He was awarded the “De Scientia et Humanitate Optime Meritis” — the highest honour to be awarded by the Czech Academy of Sciences, which he received at a special ceremony from the President of the Academy in Prague on June 18, 2008.

A modest man, Prof Novak held Newcastle University and city in his greatest affection as a place offering freedom from his earlier difficulties in central Europe. The family joined Newcastle Reform Synagogue, but were equallyvalued by the United community.

Prof Novak indulged his artistic talent and exhibited successfully in local Wizo exhibitions. Other interests included classical music, opera, theatre, reading, walking and travelling. He is survived by his son Michal and daughter Zuzana Segelman, 12 grandchildren, over 50 great grandchildren and a great, great granddaughter. Risa predeceased him.



Prof Pavel Novak: born September 7, 1918. Died February 24, 2018




Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive