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Obituary - Victor Milligan

ICE Past President Adrian Long celebrates the life of Victor Milligan (11 November 1929 – March 4)

Most of us are thankful if we can excel in one field of endeavour but the late Victor Milligan who sadly passed away on 4 March was outstanding as an Athlete, as a leader and as a civil engineer. Milligan grew up in East Belfast where his parents had moved from the Kilrea area. His father was a policeman and even though the family were members of St Donards’ Parish Church, Victor joined the 24th BB Company in Bloomfield Presbyterian Church which was slightly nearer to his home – 8 Irwin Drive.

Milligan excelled academically at RBAI (Inst) where he won a scholarship to Queen’s, as an athlete and his leadership potential shone through as he was selected to be Head Boy. At Queen’s he was awarded a 1st Class Honours degree in Civil Engineering in 1951 and in the following year an MSc in the relatively new area of soil mechanics. After two years in industry in Scotland he accepted a King George VI Memorial Fellowship to Purdue University, USA.

He is perhaps best known in Northern Ireland for his athletics prowess as he had become our top middle distance runner in the early 1950’s. Unfortunately, due to an injury, he was unable to, compete in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki but in 1954 he was captain of the NI Empire (now Commonwealth) Games team in Vancouver. In the Mile of the Century finiMilliganshed fourth behind Bannister and Landy (who both broke the four minute mile) and overnight he became a household name in NI. Milligan could have gone on to even greater achievements but shortly after, his athletic career came to an abrupt end when he suffered a serious climbing accident in the Great Tetons in the US. He was in a coma for weeks and it was feared that he would never walk again. Fortunately was Milligan nursed back to health by Mary Ann, who became his first wife and the mother of their two sons Jeffrey and Michael.

Switching his focus from athletics to the civil engineering career he loved, he moved to Canada in 1956 and four years later, at the early age of 30, he established the Geotechnical Consultancy Golder Associates in Mississauga, West Toronto jointly with Hugh Golder – one of the world authorities in this field. From 1960 to his retirement in 1995 Milligan utilised his leadership skills, technical expertise and business acumen to lead this company into a position of world eminence. Golder Associates now has staff of over 7,000 in 160 offices world wide (including one in Belfast) and it is now the largest geotechnical consultancy in the world.

As a geotechnical civil engineer his contributions have been acclaimed internationally for projects such as

·       The 13km long Northumberland Strait Bridge from Prince Edward Island to the mainland, many other bridges and dock facilities.

·       Major tunnelling projects in soft ground in Toronto, the Atlanta Subway system, Melbourne Underground, Singapore Rapid Transit System, Caracas Subway in Venezuela.

·       Over 50 dams up to 200m in height in North America, Greece and Australia.

Within the Engineering profession in North America Victor was highly acclaimed. He was the founding editor in 1963 of the Canadian Geotechnical Journal – now one of the top three journals in this field in the world. He delivered the 38th Karl Terzaghi Lecture in 2002 in Washington DC and won the Sir John F Kennedy Medal – the most distinguished award of the Engineering Institute of Canada.

Throughout his career and right up to his untimely death Victor was honoured by various international organisations and only three will be highlighted here:

  • Honorary DSc degrees from the University of Waterloo (Canada 1990) and Queen’s University, Belfast (1993). Victor had earlier given an outstanding  Harry Ferguson Memorial lecture in 1984 at his Alma Mater and in recent years he has been a generous benefactor to Queen’s.
  • In 2001 he was elected an overseas Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. This was an outstanding achievement as less than 50 are elected each year (90% from the UK and only 10% from the rest of the world) – a clear recognition of his outstanding contributions to the Engineering profession worldwide.
  • In 2005 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers (oldest professional body for engineers in the world) – the only person from Canada. Here it is interesting to note that Stephen Bechtel, (former CEO of the Bechtel Corporation, largest construction company in the world) is the only Honorary Fellow from USA.

In spite of all this acclaim Milligan always remained modest and unassuming but wonderful company.

Milligan wass a devoted husband to Mary Ann before she lost her battle to cancer in 1988, and his second wife Babs who also succumbed to cancer in 2003. Milligan visited Northern Ireland on many occasions most recently in 2007 shortly after he married Donna who had been Mary Ann’s best friend. Victor will be greatly missed by Donna, Jeffrey, Michael and their families. His classmates from 1951, his colleagues from Golder Associates and many engineers across the world mourn the passing of an outstanding role model for humanity.

A.E. Long

Former Dean of Faculty of Engineering at QUB & Past President of ICE

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