Tributes paid to Professor John Wilson, 1951-2013

05 Jul 2013 16:58:19.383

Professor John Wilson, who worked in The University of Nottingham’s Faculty of Engineering for the last 30 years, has died aged 62.

Described as “the father of rail human factors”, Prof Wilson’s work was instrumental in the development of tools now routinely used worldwide to predict workload demands upon signallers.

In addition to his work in industry, Prof Wilson was also a gifted teacher and researcher. He joined The University of Nottingham in 1983 and has since supervised more than 50 PhDs in human factors and ergonomics. He worked at Loughborough University from 1974-78, the University of Birmingham from 1980-83, the University of California from 1987-89 and the University of New South Wales from 2006-08.

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Prof John Wilson at Nottingham

Professor Sarah Sharples, Head of the University’s Human Factors Research Group, said: "John was fantastic to collaborate with, combining a love of travelling and fun with a strong work ethic and made a special effort to support younger colleagues and students in developing their careers.

“The human factors research group now has many members, including me, who would not have the careers that they do without the help of John, and we will all miss his insightful critique and wonderful company tremendously.”

Richard Cobb, Director of Studies for Mechanical, Materials and Manufacturing Engineering at the University, said: “John was an inspirational teacher who enthused students over the past 25 years with his passion for Human Factors. He made the subject come alive with his entertaining and engaging style and imparted scientific and research rigour into all who had the pleasure to be taught by him. Numerous undergraduate students enrolled for PhD research because of John and his energy and work rate was second to none. John was a great friend and mentor to many in the Department and we will not see his like again.”

Prof Wilson was involved in departmental football and cricket matches, as well as being an outstanding squash and tennis player.

Ergonomics for Network Rail

In addition to his work at the University, Prof Wilson was also Principal Ergonomist for Network Rail.

Professor Andrew McNaughton, Technical Director at HS2, said: “I regard John Wilson as the father of rail human factors. Almost singlehandedly he took it from the valuable but narrow consideration of human error affecting safety and developed the discipline of Ergonomics to be at the heart of the railway. As Chief Engineer of Network Rail I regarded John's discipline as central to successful operations and maintenance. Now it is driving the design of Britain's future high speed railway. John has influenced the rail domain internationally profoundly and permanently. It was a privilege to work with John and a constant excitement to learn from him.”

Prof Wilson had been a part of the Network Rail Ergonomics team since it was founded and he pioneered the joint PhD programme between The University of Nottingham and Network Rail, which has been recognised within the rail industry as a best practice of embedding PhD research in industry.

Michael Carey, Head of Ergonomics at Network Rail, said: “Many of the Network Team joined after studying with John as MSc, MEng or PhD students. John's knowledge and drive was instrumental in the development of a suite of tools now routinely used worldwide to predict workload demands upon signallers. He also took a lead in setting benchmarks in difficult occupational safety areas such as maximum acceptable pull forces in mechanical signalboxes and fatigue limits on working hours for safety-critical workers.

“No-one who met him could fail to appreciate his technical input and drive for ergonomics in the railways. Whilst he hated administration and computer issues were never his fault(!), he was a good friend, a dedicated colleague and he will be greatly missed.”

Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors

Dr Richard Graveling, President of the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, said: "I was deeply saddened to hear of the loss of John, who had been closely involved with us for many years in a wide variety of roles, and very recently as our President. Even during the later stages of his illness he displayed tremendous commitment and keenness to contribute to IEHF activities. He will be greatly missed."

Prof Wilson was also Editor in Chief of the journal Applied Ergonomics. Ken Parsons, Professor of Environmental Ergonomics at Loughborough University, said: “John and I became editors of the journal over 30 years ago. It was always a pleasure and inspiration to work with him. He was a world leading Ergonomist who through his dedication and hard work played a leading role in establishing the outstanding international reputation that the journal holds today.”

Other achievements

Prof Wilson founded the Institute for Occupational Ergonomics (jointly with Professor Nigel Corlett), Virtual Reality Applications Research Team and Centre for Rail Human Factors, which are now part of the Human Factors Research Group at the University. The book he co-authored with Prof Corlett – Evaluation in Human Work – has become an ergonomics ‘bible’ and been read as a core text by thousands of ergonomics students around the world.

He served on numerous international conference committees and his work had an enormous impact on the discipline of human factors and ergonomics. His extensive contributions were recognised by numerous awards, including the Fredrick Bartlett medal from the Ergonomics Society in 1995 and the Distinguished Overseas Colleague Award of the US Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in 2008.

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottinghamhas 42,000 students at award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It was ‘one of the first to embrace a truly international approach to higher education’, according to the Sunday Times University Guide 2013. It is also one of the most popular universities among graduate employers, one of the world’s greenest universities, and winner of the Times Higher Education Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Development’. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong and the QS World Rankings.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise. The University aims to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. The University won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education for its research into global food security.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest ever fundraising campaign, will deliver the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Sarah Sharples, Head of the University’s Human Factors Research Group, on +44 (0) 115 951 4196,

Fraser Wilson - Communications Officer

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 846 6691 Location: University Park

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