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Obituary - Professor Sir Alec Skempton


One of the most significant civil engineers of the 20th century died on 9 August aged 87.

ALEC SKEMPTON'S contribution to the subject of soil mechanics is unquestionable. In a career spanning over 60 years he played a key role in developing and achieving recognition for soil mechanics in civil engineering through his research and teaching.

Known affectionately by friends and colleagues as 'Skem', 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 famous failure of Chingford Dam in 1937, an event that brought soil mechanics to the attention of the wider civil engineering community. Skempton's work on the properties of London Clay in the late 1950s was instrumental in making possible the construction of tall buildings in London.

Skempton spent most of his career at Imperial College, London. He founded an undergraduate course in soil mechanics there 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 and vice president of the ICE between 1974 and 1976.

Despite retiring in 1981, when he became Emeritus Professor, Skempton remained very active at Imperial, stepping down from the lectern only three years ago aged 84, and continuing to work until just a few weeks before his death. He had latterly been writing A biographical dictionary of civil engineers of the British Isles 1500-1830 with ICE chief librarian Mike Chrimes, due to be published by the ICE this autumn.

Giving an address at Skempton's funeral last week, friend and colleague Professor John Burland of Imperial said: 'Skem loved informal gatherings and hated formal ones. When we organised the celebration for his Knighthood [in 2000], I know we had to work very hard to get him there - he would not come if there were going to be speeches.'

Burland recalled first seeing Skempton at the Fifth International Conference of Soil Mechanics in Paris in 1961. 'I didn't meet him then, I just worshipped from afar.'

He remembered Skempton's presidential address, in which he warned of complacency arising from our rapidly increasing ability to carry out sophisticated analyses.

'Optimism and over-confidence may impress one's clients, but they have no influence on the great forces of nature, ' Skempton had cautioned. 'There is a sermon in that. I certainly used it to great effect with the Pisa Commission, ' said Burland.

'He had an incredible memory - with the amazing ability to recall information, often gleaned years before. His also had an extraordinary laser-like concentration. When he focused on a subject, or enthused about it, he used to burn it up, such was the intensity of his single-minded pursuit.

'And he was almost childlike in the way he would keep asking questions - questions which to us sophisticates would seem somewhat naive - and then their profundity would gradually dawn. Skem needed to assemble and study all the facts for himself and then draw his own conclusions. Of course everyone wished that he would have gone on and on. He will do so in our hearts.'

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