Childhood friend pays tribute to Northampton scientist respected across the world

Robert Pragnell at St Giles school, aged 10 - he is pictured at the end of the back row on the right
Robert Pragnell at St Giles school, aged 10 - he is pictured at the end of the back row on the right

Tributes have been paid to a Northampton scientist renowned as one of the world’s leading authorities in humidity.

Robert Pragnell, aged 65, died last week last week after a long battle with cancer, and leaves two sons, William and Edward.

His childhood friend, James Kingston, led the tributes to Mr Pragnell, who was born in Northampton in 1949.

“It was my privilege to have had him as a friend from our very earliest years,” Mr Kingston said.

“Robert and myself grew up as close neighbours. His father owning a watch makers business at 79 Kettering Road, and my parents a fruit and vegetable shop on Abington Square. Robert and myself both attended St Giles school and he would call for me each morning, and we would make the journey together.

“Our short walk took us along St Edmund’s Road, a terraced street, illuminated at that time by gas street lighting. We would often pass the Co-op milk delivery man, with his horse and dray. Crossing York Road and cutting through St Giles church yard brought us out in St Giles Terrace to our school, St Giles, which at that time was heated by open coal fires and lit by gas; a very different world to today, but nevertheless cosy, warm and welcoming.

“At the age of 11 we both transferred to Cherry Orchard Secondary Modern School, and at the end of that period I entered the world of work, Robert moving on to Northampton Grammar School for boys, where he attained his A levels and won his place at Nottingham University,” he added.

“We had grown up together as children and young men, involving ourselves in many projects and adventures. When we were aged 18, we spent some time with a boat we had purchased from Beckets Boat House, travelling on the inland waterways and some coastal regions of the country.

“Robert studied physics and nathematics, which led him into the world of scientific research. He worked for Sira for 20 years, a leading test, calibration and certification provider, working with a wide range of industrial clients, where he was responsible for the humidity laboratory. Sira has been at the forefront of emission monitoring and calibration testing for over 20 years, and is the Environment Agency’s chosen partner in implementing the MCERTS Schemes.

“In total, Robert had over 30 years experience in humidity measurement. This included development of the UK primary gravimetric hygrometer at NPL. NPL is the UK’s National Measurement Institute, and is a world-leading centre of excellence in developing and applying the most accurate measurement standards, science and technology available,” he said.

“Having grown up together and embarked on many adventures through our childhood we remained firm friends to the end of Robert’s life.

“Although mourning the loss of a great fellow, I am aware of the privilege it was to have known this man and am grateful for the wonderful friendship we shared throughout our life.

“Apart from his scientific ability, which is clear, he was a wonderful and amazing larger than life character. Our friendship spanned over 60 years, yet the memories of my childhood are as vivid as if it was just last week. The time has passed so quickly, but I suppose it’s been a lifetime,” Mr Kingston added.