Shaw, Elizabeth M

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Elizabeth M. Shaw


Elizabeth M. Shaw 1928 (Hebburn on Tyne, UK) - 2013 (Hornby, UK)


Elizabeth was born at Hebburn on Tyne in 1928 and, following the arrival of a younger brother, Norman, when she was about six or seven, she was looked after by her Grandmother Anderson and a maiden Aunt Lottie who lived in Durham. When the war came along, Elizabeth continued to live with them at a safe distance from the bombing of Tyneside.

She completed all her primary and secondary school education in Durham and then went on to University at Bedford College in London, graduating with degree in Geography in 1949. The course included a field course in the Wicklow Mountains and a visit to Trinity College Dublin. The trip had the added bonus of being free from post-war rationing – unlimited bacon and eggs and access to nylon stockings! She then did a teaching Diploma and taught for a while at Ormskirk Grammar School. But she had the bug for hydrology and she went to Durham University in 1953 to take a postgraduate course in hydrology. This involved her living, on her own, in a little cottage in Upper Weardale for two years whilst she measured rainfall and run-off over the whole catchment. This entailed her travelling around the area on a 125cc Royal Enfield motor bike!

In 1955 she was invited by Professor Gordon Manley (who was later to establish Environmental Studies at Lancaster) to work as a Research Assistant at Bedford College where she had done her first degree. In this capacity she was given the task of calculating the 10- year running means of the Central England temperature record from 1680 to 1957. This comprised 17 series, the 12 monthly mean temperatures, 4 seasonal temperatures and the annual means. She did this in just three weeks using the department’s ‘new’ Facit Hand Calculating Machine. The Central England temperature series continues to be updated each month by the UK Meteorological Office.

In 1959 Elizabeth was responsible for the organisation of a major project on the microclimates and ecological studies of the karstic fissures on The Burren, Co. Clare. The ecology elements were organised from Trinity College Dublin. In 1960, she was invited by Professor Stanley Beaver to undertake research work at the University College of North Staffordshire (which became Keele University in 1962). In his letter to Elizabeth, Prof Beaver wrote “Briefly, the work is to study why it rains in this area, and why different sorts of rain have different incidence over the Cheshire Plain and the Pennines.” And so she did, completing the work and publishing a paper on the subject.

In 1963 Elizabeth was appointed as hydrologist to the Devon River Board at Exeter, and it was at this time that she started to become known internationally. She gave a paper to a WMO International Conference in Quebec, Canada. This in itself was a landmark achievement, which attracted the attention of the West Country Express and Echo with a piece headlined “Hydrology is this expert’s business”. She was a woman in what was generally a ‘man’s world’. The only other woman at the conference was a Russian. More was to come. In 1965 she was recruited by Professor Peter Wolf to the Civil Engineering Department at Imperial College. She had now broken another two barriers: a woman in an engineer’s world and a geographer in an engineer’s world. While at Imperial College she produced the first edition of "Hydrology in Practice" as a textbook for hydrology students in engineering, focusing on methods used in the UK. The book became widely used.

After her retirement from Imperial College, Elizabeth moved to Hornby in the Lune Valley, where she continued to work on improvements to Hydrology in Practice, with 2nd and 3rd editions being published in 1988 and 1994. These continued to be popular undergraduate and postgraduate texts but got overtaken by new developments, particularly when the Flood Studies Report was replaced by the Flood Estimation Handbook in 1999. The book continued to sell, however, and Elizabeth badgered the publishers to see it updated. Eventually, Taylor and Francis approached Keith Beven at Lancaster University task with the help of Nick Chappell, also at Lancaster, and Rob Lamb of JBA Consulting and other staff at JBA. Since Lancaster was only just downstream of Hornby, it was possible to discuss the 4th edition with her.

While clearly proud of what Hydrology in Practice had achieved, she felt that because the 4th edition was much changed from the first three editions, it was not right that she should continue to be one of its authors. However, just before the manuscript was submitted Keith Beven pointed out to Elizabeth that a lot of material had been carried over from the earlier editions and that in any case everyone had known Hydrology in Practice simply as ‘Shaw’ ever since it was first published. So Elizabeth remains as first author and it can still be known as ‘Shaw’. The published version was delivered to her in Hornby before the Alzheimer’s took too great a hold, and is a fitting tribute to her contribution to hydrological education in the UK and many other countries.

Her pastoral care of students on the Engineering Hydrology MSc course at Imperial is well known. She supported the underdog — persuading colleagues to accept onto the course a number of students with third class degrees, sensing an aptitude for the subject not measured by their previous academic performance alone. Just as she herself had had to grapple with the mathematical side of the subject despite not having an engineer’s background in maths, she had an empathy for those she saw as struggling in the academic world. Her caring attitude extended to her colleagues. Enda O’Connell recalls joining the hydrology group at Imperial 1968 as a ‘young greenhorn’ lecturer who had come to London from University College Galway. Elizabeth took him under her wing and gave him wise words of advice and encouragement. He also recalls her warmth and friendliness, her infectious enthusiasm about her work, and her remarkable energy. He also says she had an incisive scientific mind, and was always critical of academic work that was not up to her standard.

Paul Johnston, another Imperial colleague, recalls that at her retirement gathering in 1984, Professor Ian Munro, who was Head of Department at the time, noted that Elizabeth was the only person he knew who still watched the BBC snooker on TV in black and white – and could clearly follow all the shots! Perhaps this reflected her hydrological training and the importance of careful observation of data.... Paul Jowitt remembers that when he and Howard Wheater were recruited to fill the boots of Mike Hall and Enda O’Connell (not an easy task!) it was to Elizabeth that they turned when the Imperial Engineering Hydrology MSc was re-launched. Elizabeth provided the continuity, and the course’s foundation teaching in the basics of hydrology and meteorology.

Elizabeth had strong views. Even after she had retired, she would opine at length about the loss of local engineering expertise in managing catchments with the formation of the regional Water Authorities and later the Environment Agency. Her local MP for Hornby also received numerous missives on the subject..... She was a kenspeckle character. She had a lovely chuckle which many will still be able to hear. And she bought the Jowitt children Mr Men and Little Miss books.... In retrospect, she could have been the lead character in one of them all by herself — Miss Hydrologist.

Hydrological Achievements[edit]

Her academic work was nearly always focused on meteorology and rainfall, particularly Areal Rainfall Estimation and Network Design. Applications ranged from the benchmark Lynmouth flood with Dr Prus- Chacinski of Dobbie and Partners to a long-term study of rainfall in New Guinea in which she was introduced to multiquadric splines by Paul Johnston. This in turn led to a publication of a paper with Peter Lynn, one of the Imperial MSc students. She also did work on network design with another MSc Student, Peter Herbst from South Africa. Together with Imperial colleague Enda O’Connell she published a paper using spatial correlation analysis to assist in designing rain gauge networks. Elizabeth’s connections to Irish hydrologists extended to Eamon Nash and Jim Dooge who were regular visitors to Imperial in the 1970s, as were many other hydrologists with international reputations such as Raudkivi, Gumbel, Linsley, Amorocho, Matalas and Midgley. She knew them all and inhabited their world. Hydrology in Practice, published in 1983, was her big professional achievement, and must go down as a milestone in British Hydrology. It fulfilled a personal goal of training engineers to be competent in hydrology, and she had the energy, enthusiasm and dedication to deliver what was needed.

Reference Material[edit]

Elizabeth M. Shaw, Obituary, Circulation, British Hydrological Society, No 118, 25-27 (Paul Jowitt, Keith Beven with contributions from the Rev Norman Shaw, Paul Johnston, Enda O’Connell)

Major Publications[edit]

Shaw, Elizabeth M., Hydrology in Practice, 1st Edition, 1983, Taylor and Francis: London

Shaw, Elizabeth, M., Keith J. Beven, Nick A. Chappell, Rob Lamb.Hydrology in Practice, Fourth Edition, 2010. Routledge/CRC Press.

Herbst, P.H. and Shaw, E.M. 1969. Determining rain gauge densities in England from limited data to give a required precision for monthly areal rainfall estimates. J. Inst. Water Engrs, 23, 218–230.

Shaw, E.M. and Lynn, P.P. 1972. Areal rainfall evaluation using two surface fitting techniques. Hydrol. Sci. Bull., 17, 419–433.

Lee, P.S., Lynn, P.P. and Shaw, E.M. 1974. Comparison of multiquadric surfaces for the estimation of areal rainfall. Hydrol. Sci. Bull., 19, 303–317.

Shaw, E.M. and O’Connell, P.E. 1976. Design of a rain gauge network to provide a specified accuracy in mean areal rainfall. Proc. Int. Seminar on Hydrological Network Design and Information Transfer, Newcastle, WMO Operational Hydrology Report No. 8, 129–150.


Hydrology in Practice, 4th Edition