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Geotechnical heritage: What’s in a name?

The British Geotechnical Association has a host of annual awards and prizes but the names behind those accolades pay tribute to the founding fathers of ground engineering.

GE is the official magazine of the British Geotechnical Association (BGA) and, like the magazine, the association has a long history marked by the support of influential figures in the industry.

The current BGA started out as the British Geotechnical Society (BGS) and will be celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2019.

Each year the BGA holds a number of annual lectures and prizes with names that honour the figures that have helped shape the ground engineering sector.

Wining one of these accolades is seen within the industry as career defining. The list of people who have secured these titles over the years reads as a Who’s Who of geotechnics.

However, this article takes a look at the people behind those awards and their contribution to the industry.

“I think we sometimes forget that not everyone knows why these individuals were important and inspiring, and it is important to share this with the next generation of geotechnical professionals,” says BGA chairman Martin Preene.


Rankine Lecture
William John Macquorn Rankine 

william john maquorn rankine

william john maquorn rankine

The annual Rankine Lecture is named after William John Macquorn Rankine, best known to geotechnical engineers for his theory on earth pressures, which was published in 1857.

However, he was also one of the founding fathers of thermodynamics, a world authority on ship design and an instigator of the first engineering degree course at a British university.

At the start of his career, he practiced as a civil engineer working for railway companies and consultants. But from 1848, a much greater part of his time was spent working on theoretical physics which gained him his fellowship of the Royal Society of London (1853).

In 1855 he was appointed to the chair of civil engineering and mechanics at the University of Glasgow. His inaugural lecture was entitled “The harmony between theory and practice” and in it he distinguished between theoretical and practical science.

He was widely recognised for his contributions to engineering science; among many tributes paid to him during his life and after, father of modern engineering mechanics Stephen Timoshenko recognised him as being the first person to define stress and strain rigorously.

In 1961, the BGS instigated the internationally acclaimed Rankine Lecture as recognition of his contribution to soil  mechanics. The 58th lecture was held in 2018.


Cooling Prize
Leonard Cooling

leonard cooling dr leonard cooling (photograph courtesy of christine cooling)

leonard cooling dr leonard cooling

Source: Christine Cooling

The Cooling Prize competition is held annually and marks its 50th anniversary in 2019.

The event is named after Leonard Cooling, who is widely regarded as the father of British soil mechanics after he set up the first proper soil mechanics laboratory at the Building Research Station (BRS) in 1934.

His role as pioneer is clear when it is remembered that he was the sole British representative at the first International Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering (ISSMFE) in 1936 at Harvard University, presenting three papers. At the second event in Rotterdam in 1947, there were 74 British delegates with 57 papers.

During this period of growth in soil mechanics the BRS, led by Cooling, played a key role. 

He was also an important figure in early geotechnical practice in the UK. In 1940 he started an informal discussion group at the ICE which later became the BGS and he was chairman from 1955 to 1959. He served on the editorial panel of Géotéchnique from its inception for 20 years and was chair for three years. In 1962 he was the first British Rankine Lecturer.

Cooling was invariably unpretentious, good humoured and approachable, and was enthusiastic in his support and encouragement of young geotechnical professionals, which is the focus of his eponymous award.


Skempton Medal
Sir Alec Skempton

alec skempton alec skempton enjoying a beer with young richard jardine in 1996 photograph courtesy of richard jardine

alec skempton alec skempton enjoying a beer with young richard jardine in 1996 photograph courtesy of richard jardine

Source: Richard Jardine

The Skempton Medal is named after Sir Alec Skempton and is awarded to a BGA member who has made an outstanding contribution to the practice of geotechnical engineering over a sustained period of time.

After achieving a brilliant undergraduate record at Imperial College London, he joined the BRS as a geotechnical engineer and was appointed to the Imperial College staff in 1946. He was instrumental in establishing soil mechanics as an academic discipline and became one of its leading figures.

Skempton also made a great contribution to Quaternary geology and was widely consulted on problems involving landslips, foundations, retaining walls and embankments.

Notable among these was his work on the large dam at Mangla in Pakistan and his investigation of the Carsington Dam failure in 1984.

He was elected as the second president of the ISSMFE in 1957.

Single-minded in his devotion to his work, he inspired aff ection in his colleagues through his enthusiasm for the subject. He was an exacting taskmaster, set very high standards and worked until shortly before his death in August 2001.

He was recognised and honoured throughout the world by national academies of science and doctorates: he carried these lightly and modestly. Skem – as he was known – was awarded a knighthood in June 2000 in recognition of his achievements.


Fleming Award
Ken Fleming

ken fleming dr ken fleming photograph courtesy of cementation skanska foundations

ken fleming dr ken fleming photograph courtesy of cementation skanska foundations

Source: Cementation Skanska

The Fleming Award is an annual project award to commemorate the life and work of Ken Fleming, who was chief engineer at Cementation Skanska Foundations.

Fleming graduated with a first from the Queens University, Belfast in 1955, where he became an assistant lecturer. In 1958 he was awarded his PhD for work on the bearing capacity of pile groups.

In 1968 Fleming joined Cementation where he remained until retirement, bringing him together with David Greenwood and Zim Sliwinski – a formidable trio which did much to infl uence and shape early British geotechnical practice.

He settled easily into the Cementation family, quickly becoming an engineering “guru’”, designer and problem solver, a role which was eff ectively unchanged throughout his long career as chief engineer.

Fleming had a wider influence, including his participation on a large number of committees where he served to ensure quality and sound practice in construction. This influence was not confined to the UK and Fleming published extensively on the global stage. He was principal author of the book Piling Engineering which remains a standard reference book around the world.

The BSI awarded Fleming its Distinguished Service Award and the BGS honoured him with the prestigious Skempton Medal for lifelong contribution to geotechnical engineering.


John Mitchell Award
John Mitchell

john m

john m

The John Mitchell Award is presented to individuals who, in the course of their careers via incremental works, have made signifi cant contribution to geotechnical practice.

It commemorates the life and work of John Mitchell whose life was cut short suddenly and tragically in a construction site accident in 1990.

Mitchell’s professional life was closely associated with Arup Geotechnics, which he joined in 1968 after joining the business two years earlier as a structural engineer. Fred Butler persuaded Mitchell to join the post graduate course in soil mechanics at Imperial College London, where his dissertation on ground anchors was the start of a life-long interest in the subject.

During the 1970s and 1980s Mitchell was involved in many deep foundation and basement projects in London resulting in his development of the Mitchell design chart summarising design shear strengths with depth, which became a standard Arup reference.

In all his dealings Mitchell had the rare ability to treat everyone the same way with openness and friendship and everyone from managing directors and gangers through to graduates appreciated his willingness to communicate and help with problems however busy he was. His extensive knowledge and wisdom based on personal experience and a ready memory made him a constant focus for advice to colleagues. 

● This feature includes contributions from Andrew Bell, Christine Cooling, Kelvin Higgins, Richard Jardine, Sergio Solera and Martyn Stroud.



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