Remembering Claude de Tourreil (1936-2006)

The news arrived like a bombshell. “… diagnosis of acute AML type leukemia … prognosis bad …. at best 30% chance of remission with chemotherapy.” My stomach could hardly digest the words my eyes were feeding me. Claude was battling for his life and this only weeks after enjoying his usual ski holiday near Davos. It all seemed too impossible to comprehend. Here was a man who in the past 24 months alone had traveled to China, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, Hong Kong, Iran – not to mention throughout Europe. How could he do all this and be so sick? His message ended with “I hope that your family is well and that the end of the winter is not too far away.” This was the true character Claude – telling me in one breath that he was dying yet mindful of my loved ones whom he also cared for and wishing that the brutal Canadian winter we had just endured was hopefully coming to an end.

Remembering Claude de Tourreil (1936-2006) Claude de Tourreil

His decision to undertake chemotherapy showed that he was a fighter, in spite of the odds stacked against him. I spoke with Claude every day during the start of his treatment and his initial response to it seemed almost too good to be true. Hardly any nausea or any of the other side effects which sometimes force patients to abandon this therapy too early for it to work. More important, his daughter Sunita flew immediately from California to be at his side and to stand with him in this battle for his life. Sunita’s presence truly energized him and he appeared quite optimistic throughout his early days of chemotherapy. However, during the latter stages, a problem developed in the form of an infection caused by his greatly diminished capacity to fight off bacteria. Indeed, one of the requirements during his treatment, which also dangerously lowered his immunity, was that he be kept isolated in a pressurized room in order to reduce the risk of just this type of problem. This infection and the accompanying fever weakened him greatly and by the third week of March his condition had worsened perceptibly. He could hardly complete a sentence without coughing uncontrollably. Still, it seemed that there was some basis for hope. After all, he was in a hospital in Switzerland where medical facilities are among the best in the world and apparently he had the finest medical supervision and nursing care. Could this not eventually save him? Alas, this was not to be.

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When I next spoke to Sunita it was quite apparent to the oncologist that there would be no remission. Not even the need for another biopsy of his bone marrow to confirm this sad fact. Now, faced with the reality ahead, Claude made the decision to stop all further treatment. As Sunita expressed it, “given the circumstances, he decided that he just did not want to ‘hang around’ too long.”

By the time I arrived at his bedside the next day, Claude was in the final stages of his life’s journey. He could no longer talk but, as I approached him, he opened his eyes and rolled them in such a way as if to say, “look at what has become of me?” I squeezed his hand and cried to see a close friend so bravely enduring such suffering. I last saw Claude around 19:00 that same day. He was alone in the room and appeared resting comfortably. I chose not to disturb him by announcing my presence.

Right afterwards, I took a walk along the beautiful lakeside in Neuchâtel, only a few hundred meters from the hospital. Although it had rained on and off all day, the setting sun had made a surprise late appearance and was now illuminating the tops of the distant snow-covered Alps with a brilliant golden hue. They were truly majestic. As the sun continued to descend, their colour changed progressively from gold to bright pink, to violet and then to a pale grey, before finally fading away completely with the approaching night.

Claude passed away only hours later.

An Exceptional Life Lived

If a person’s life can be summed up by how his passing is marked, then it is already clear that Claude de Tourreil led a truly exceptional existence. Throughout the world, people of many different age groups cultures and backgrounds are together mourning the loss of a respected scientist, distinguished industry luminary, engineer, journalist, colleague and friend. Claude was all of these. Albert Einstein wrote: “it is not the years in one’s life which matter; it is the life in one’s years.” By this standard, Claude led an exceptionally long life. He raised two wonderful children and his daughter Sunita, particularly, showed her devotion by staying with him throughout all the difficult weeks of his treatment; he saw more of the world than anyone could normally ever hope to; he accomplished the ultimate achievements in his chosen field; he made friends wherever he went. This was truly a life lived to the fullest!

I first met Claude in 1990 when a project I was as involved with as a management consultant first required me to learn about electrical insulators – something I had never before heard of. A mutual friend at Hydro Québec suggested I speak to Claude since he was apparently a world-renowned expert. You can imagine the situation: a neophyte asking the world renowned guru, “what is an insulator?” It might be compared to an interviewer asking Picasso “what is a painting?” Yet, in spite of this vast difference in our exposure to this subject, Claude never made me feel that my complete lack of knowledge did not warrant a proper explanation, even by someone so distinguished as himself.

Most people who knew Claude would have had a similar experience. He was always willing to share his knowledge, without automatically pre-judging the qualifications of the person who needed it. At the same time, it should be said that Claude would not ‘suffer fools lightly’. He would be quick to point out what he felt were inadequacies in any research or to make suggestions regarding how things could be made or done better. In doing so, he was in a sense a vigilant and constant sentinel of quality control in this industry.

During his many years as an incisive Contributing Editor and Columnist for INMR, Claude provided a valuable contribution to the growth and status of the Journal. He never failed to find just the right combination of objective information and personal insight to ensure that every article or Commentary he was involved with would offer a valuable return for the time spent reading it. He was also a very important part of all the INMR WORLD CONGRESS events, both as speaker and Chairman.

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Any retrospective of Claude’s professional activities and career would have to dwell briefly on some of the things he disapproved of. Especially notable among these were excessive bureaucracy as well as what he saw as the virtual take-over of the electric utility industry by financial types. Claude was concerned that the increased profile of such people in managing utilities was resulting in a corresponding loss of engineering excellence. This worried him greatly, especially the reductions and eliminations of research and engineering staff throughout the industry that had already begun. He often expressed his fear that all that had been accomplished from years of painstaking development work would be quickly lost as many of the key individuals involved dispersed into retirement or other walks of life. It would be hard to argue that Claude made important points in these types of observations and that he was actually expressing the feelings of a significant proportion of people in this industry.

What has been Claude’s legacy?

My view is that he has shown how far a new technology such as composite insulators can be exploited through systematic research, continual manufacturing refinements and growing application expertise. In his more than 100 Papers and one textbook on this subject, he demonstrated that good science and engineering can lead to significant improvements in the design and use of electrical insulators. More significantly, his ongoing work as a Convener of one of the most influential WGs in this field remind us that this road still needs to be traveled. There is still work needed in certain unresolved areas. Much remains to be done. The insulator world desperately needs more of the likes of Claude de Tourreil, especially at this critical time when the industry is beset with many challenges. It needs more people who, like Claude, have had extensive experience on both the utility and the supplier side; people who, like Claude, are willing to freely give of their time to advance engineering without necessarily trying mainly to advance their careers; people who, like Claude, are so dedicated to their chosen discipline that they can devote most of their entire life to it.

If I close my eyes and imagine, perhaps I can in future years still see Claude finding a comfortable chair in his small garden overlooking Lake Champlain, a copy of INMR in his hands, reviewing how well we are looking after his life’s work.

Marvin Zimmerman

Remembering Claude de Tourreil (1936-2006) INTEGRATED Engineering Software Mar 11

Tributes to a Special Man 

He led his life on his terms, his end was quick (relatively) and he was with his daughter. I read her blogs and I share a lot of her sentiments … Claude just undertook another trip, this time on a one-way ticket to paradise. My first meeting with Claude was in 1984 in Montreal. I was attending a conference and was to visit his lab with Ed Cherney regarding a CEA project. He showed me his work on materials. Following a CIGRE meeting he invited me to his home in Vichy. He called a ‘spade’ a ‘spade’, yet he was not abrasive like others who share the same trait.

Ravi S. Gorur, Arizona State University, USA 


I recall, as someone new to the CIGRE and IEC arena, I was very comforted by the fact that Claude would go out of his way to ensure that my voice was heard at the same time as many of his eminent colleagues. My abiding memory will be of Claude’s sense of humour. He could take a heated discussion to belly laughter in a couple of words. Claude was a pathfinder and his work with Sediver and IREQ was pioneering and, and in my opinion, is the normative reference for many engineers working in the field of composite insulation. He was an engineer, a gentleman and above all a character who will be sorely missed by all.

Leigh Williams, formerly with the National Grid, U.K.


In the 29 years I’ve worked with high voltage insulators, I’ve had the privilege of associating with a few “true gentlemen”. As the industry has changed, these few have dwindled. And we are all the worse for it. Claude was among those few. I’ll always remember the smile with which he greeted every challenge and the patience of his response. He will be missed.

R. Allen Bernstorf, Hubbell Power Systems, USA


The death of Dr. Claude de Tourreil is a big loss to the electrical sector, but he leaves us an important legacy in the actual development stage of insulator technology, especially the polymeric types. Those of us who usually read his articles in INMR know about his continuous dissatisfaction with the stagnation of techniques, always offering a provocation to discussion, development, etc. Wherever he is now, we are sure that his soul is satisfied with the work that he developed during an entire life dedicated to the electrical sector, and by the words of his daughter, it is clear that he had the same dedication to his family and friends. If St. Peter has yet assigned him a new e-mail account in Heaven, maybe he can know that here on Earth his colleagues are all feeling his loss, especially in the CIGRÉ, IEEE and IEC forums.

Adriano Dellallibera, Balestro, Brazil


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I became involved in the composite insulator business during the early 80s when I was finishing my M.S. degree in Russia. At that time I found quite a number of articles from the completely unknown to me – Claude de Tourreil. These articles impressed me because of their combination of deep research and very practical applications. Many yeas later I was granted an opportunity to enjoy Claude ‘live-line’, working with him on different IEC working groups. Being often involved in really hot discussions with him on insulation issues, I came to understand that this combination was his typical working life style. I have learned a lot from him and will miss him.

Igor Gutman, STRI, Sweden


As the Secretary of Cigre-Iran and Head of Insulation Co-ordination Committee of Iran, I am so sorry to learn that Claude passed away. I was the host for Working Group 33-04 in Iran in May 2005. During this meeting, Claude had the opportunity to visit some very interesting parts of Iran such as Persopolis, Shiraz, Esfahan, Bandar Abbas, etc, as well as the Iran Insulator, Simcatec and the Niroo Research Institute. His thoughts regarding this visit and discussions with Iranian experts were very interesting. Also, his knowledge and experience on insulator technologies were very useful for Iranian specialists. We have will never forget him.

M.P. Arabani, Moshanir Power Engineering, Iran

Remembering Claude de Tourreil (1936-2006) Claude left along with then co authors and friends Roy Macey and Wallace Vosloo
Claude, left, along with then co-authors and friends Roy Macey and Wallace Vosloo.

It was with great sadness that we learnt of the death of Claude de Tourreil. We mourn the passing of a dear friend and colleague. We are particularly grateful for the time we spent with Claude in the preparation of our insulator book. His vast knowledge and concise explanations were invaluable. The intensive writing sessions in a Cape Town apartment with the magnificent view of Table Mountain across the Atlantic Ocean – which Claude referred to as his “4-star Jail” – will never be forgotten. We are privileged to have been involved with him on this project and are thankful that some of his precious insight was preserved in this text.

Roy Macey & Wallace Vosloo, Mace Technologies/Eskom, South Africa


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I have read the tribute you have offered Claude de Tourreil, and I have been moved. Though I did not know him, I think that text has given me a good outline of what he was like. All I can say is I am very sorry not to have been able to get to know him and to read more of his articles, but I have got the impression that he has led a very full and good life, during which he made many good friends. So, I would like to express my condolences to his friends and family from an unknown and admiring reader. Bon courage,

Zigor Uriarte, Industrias Arruti, Spain


I saw Claude in his finest “problem solving mode”, as we dealt during the 1990s with applying non-ceramic insulators in icing conditions. This was a new operational challenge with evidence to review, theories to propose and demolish – he was a delight to work with and I have learned a lot from him.

Bill Chisholm, Kinectrics, Canada


I have fond memories of Claude. He was very supportive to the research and development of new products as well as diagnostic instruments for the insulator industry and always encouraged me in the development of new corona detection instruments. All the best and strength in handling this situation.

Roel Stolper, CSIR, South Africa


In my name and all the people working at GE Grid, I would like to express our condolences to all of Claude’s loved ones and friends. I fully agree that we lost a great friend yet I am sure that he will in a sense always remain alive for all the people who have been so lucky to meet and to know him. I have no doubts that during the next INMR World Congress, all the people attending will expect to meet Claude as usual and even as we realize that he will not be there in body, we will nevertheless still feel his presence.

Eugenio Falcone, Passoni & Villa, Italy


Claude de Tourreil was a gentleman, a scholar, a class act. He was friendly and helpful, with a great sense of humor that sometimes escapes the serious profession of engineering. A well-known expert in the field of polymer insulators, he was always willing to share his knowledge, willingly and graciously. I have known Claude over two decades and always looked forward to seeing him at conferences and seminars throughout the world. It is difficult for me to imagine that he is no longer among us; I have fond memories of my conversations with him recently at the World Congresses in Spain and in Hong Kong. Claude, my friend, I will miss you.

Arjan Jagtiani, formerly with American Electric Power, USA


I met Claude for the first time at the inaugural meeting of the Canadian Electricity Association’s (CEA) newly created Light Weight Insulator Working Group (LWIWG). The Group was tasked with having to produce three new polymer insulator purchasing specifications for the Canadian electrical utility industry. At that point I did not know who Claude was but it was quite evident from the moment he first spoke that he was someone whose knowledge in the industry was to be respected. I found it interesting that Claude did not necessarily engage in every discussion, more so in those where the Committee needed direction. When he did intervene though, his contributions provided valuable insight. I also recall some of the lighter sides of Claude. I always found him to have more of a wry sense of humour. We would be at a Committee dinner or at ease at a conference and he would come up with some of the driest yet most humorous comments. There is no doubt that Claude’s physical presence and contributions will be missed at future Committee meetings and conferences. We can be sure though that the memory of his many contributions to the industry will not be forgotten.

Tony Carreira, K-Line Insulators, Canada


We remember Claude as a friend, always available to give his opinion, endowed with great humanity and who has contributed, maybe more than anybody else,  to the diffusion of knowledge of electric insulation of lines in the world.

Management of Gruppo Bonomi, EB Rebosio, Italy


Like many others around the world, I guess, I was another casual acquaintance of Claude but his impact was so much more. I first met Claude in Sydney in 1999. I was interested, so he invited me to the CIGRE meeting of the insulators working group. One could not fail to be impressed by his leadership of a meeting. He had very clear objectives and a certain urgency about achieving important outcomes. He was irritated by trivia but had a great sense of humour.

Claude was very keen to meet new people and make new discoveries. For example, he was so excited when research found that excess hardener could cause brittle fracture, that he met me at Sydney airport, between flights, to share the news. Claude’s death comes as a great shock. He was such an impressive fellow, so positive, dynamic and enduring. His passing cannot help but get you thinking about your own direction in life; what is important and what is not? Claude’s legacy is his zest for life and passion for insulators. Now it’s up to the rest of us to continue working on the development of insulators in order to keep that passion still alive.

Tony Gillespie, Powerlink Queensland, Australia


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In life, you don’t make very many true friends. But Claude was one, not only to me, but to many others too many to name. We were graduate students together at Waterloo back in the early 1970s as part of the High Voltage Group. The experiments in the lab never seemed to cease, studying vacuum and gas breakdown in the presence of various insulators. Each day led to new discoveries, if not for the world, for ourselves. They say that most of what you learn comes from your peers. And to a large extent that was true, especially in Claude’s case. He took an interest in everyone’s project and was the sane scientist who asked the probing questions. And so it remained for the whole of his engineering career, first at IREQ, then, after retirement, at Sediver, then, after retirement again, as a sort of globe-roaming consultant and journalist. There are few other men on Earth who are as respected for their knowledge on high-voltage insulators as was Claude de Tourreil. But it didn’t stop there. A conversation with Claude on any subject always left you with the impression that he had already thought the matter through very thoroughly. He may not have had all the answers, for few things were black and white to him, but he had the uncanny ability to focus on the important issues. He was also a modest, unassuming and gentle man, true to the spirit of the quiet Canadian, a Canadian with Swiss heritage and, of late, French citizenship. But he had little stock for those who mixed politics or personalities with science or, for that matter, with most other things in life. From time-to-time, Claude would come to visit us in Saskatchewan. The first time he stayed with us, we had no spare bedroom and therefore put him up in the attic. My son, Brien, being only two at the time, wasn’t very good at remembering names, so when he spoke of Claude after that visit, he was just, “The Man in the Attic.” And, in a sense, that is the way he was for me too. Throughout his life, Claude was always there in the background, but still close at hand when you needed him – a conscience in the attic of your mind when you were slugging away on some project, reminding you of the important questions to ask.

Jay Beattie, SaskPower, Canada