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Death of soil mechanics pioneer Alec Skempton


PROFESSOR SIR Alec Skempton died on August 9, aged 87.

In a career spanning more than 60 years, Skempton was responsible for the recognition and growth of soil mechanics in civil engineering through his research and teaching.

He was involved in early UK research in geotechnical engineering at the soil mechanics section of the Building Research Station between 1936 and 1946. He was part of the team that examined the reasons behind the failure of Chingford Dam in 1937, the event that saw soil mechanics come to the attention of the wider civil engineering community.

His work in the late 1950s on the properties of London Clay helped make possible the construction of tall buildings in London.

Skempton spent most of his career at Imperial College, London, where he started an undergraduate course in soil mechanics in 1945 on secondment from BRS before becoming a full-time lecturer the following year. He was head of the civil engineering department from 1957 to 1976.

He published more than 200 papers on geotechnics and was involved in the creation of the journal Geotechnique, first published in 1948.

He was one of the original members of the ICE Soil Mechanics & Foundations Committee and a founder member of the British National Committee of the International Society of Soil Mechanics & Foundation Engineering (which eventually became the British Geotechnical Society and then the British Geotechnical Association). He was vice president of the Institution of Civil Engineers between 1974 and 1976 and the second president of the International Society of Soil Mechanics & Foundation Engineering, taking over from Karl Terzaghi.

His other field of expertise was civil engineering history. He wrote more than 30 books and papers on the subject, including work on the history of geotechnics, notably the foundations of tall buildings, history of soil properties, landmarks in early soil mechanics, earth dams and Brunel's Thames Tunnel.

Despite retiring in 1981, when he became Emeritus Professor and senior research fellow, Skempton remained very active at Imperial, lecturing until three years ago and working up to a few weeks before his death. He was knighted in 2000 and had latterly been working on A biographical dictionary of civil engineers of the British Isles 1500-1830, with ICE head librarian Mike Chrimes.

It is due to be published by the ICE this autumn.

A biography of Skempton's life, written by his daughter Judith, will be published by Whittles later this year.

Tributes to Alec Skempton from senior figures in the geotechnical community begin on page 9.

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