October 27, 2021

Karen Burt (nee Hilsum) – Brilliant Boffin

BRILLIANT BOFFINS! -the extraordinary, brainy, and often oddball men and women of Malvern

The story of radar and Malvern isn’t just about the men though – there were many brilliant women too. One such was Joan Cullen, who invented “WINDOW”. (The Americans later dubbed it “chaff”).

One of my best friends at Hillside school was Karen who became one of the UK’s most prominent female engineers, and a campaigner for women in physics and engineering. She was quite a trailblazer.

Karen and I both went to Hillside School, on the main Worcester Road in Malvern. Anyone remember the indomitable headmistress, Dorothy Quibell-Smith? It’s a mark of her amazing personality that I still remember her name to this day. She was an incredible force, and run a brilliant and fun school for girls.

Karen and I both passed our 11+ and found ourselves at the Worcester Girls’ Grammar School – where all of us Malvern kids were told we talked posh! (Perhaps we did. We didn’t know!) She was brilliantly clever though – and it showed. While I was rather lazy with my studies, Karen zoomed ahead – and landed in Cambridge! (She took after her dad, Prof Cyril Hilsum, a hugely decorated physicist, and one of the big stars of RRE.)

Her little sister, Lindsey, became the distinguished TV journalist and International Editor for Channel 4 News.

I last saw Karen at a parents’ meeting in North London where our sons were just about to start kindergarten. It was lovely to see her – in her prime!

Sadly Karen died far too young, but an award in her name helps propel other young women into careers in  engineering and science.

Professor Hilsum, who’s 95, can be seen in many pictures and old videos from the RRE days.

That’s Karen in the picture on the left – and on the right, her sister Lindsey with Boris Johnson and Prof Hilsum.

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