4 January 2012

Professor John Hutchinson

Posted by Dave Petley


Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph published a notice that John Hutchinson, Emeritus Professor of Soil Mechanics at Imperial College, died peacefully on 21st December 2011.  I am sure that, like me, others working on landslides around the world will be greatly saddened by this news.

John was born in 1926 and grew up in the city of Coventry before reading Civil Engineering at the University of Birmingham.  Upon graduating in 1947 he started his career working in engineering consultancy, initially for R. M. Douglas and then later for Rendel, Palmer and Tritton.  In 1957 he left the UK to work first for the Swedish Geotechnical Institute, and the subsequently for the better-known equivalent in Norway.  In 1961, John moved back to England to join the Building Research Station whilst studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge under the supervision of Dr Bill Ward. He was awarded his doctorate in 1965, and then joined the famous Soil Mechanics Section at Imperial College,working in probably the most dynamic and influential soil mechanics research group of all time.  He was promoted to a Readership in Soil Mechanics in 1970 and was made Professor of Engineering Geomorphology in 1977.  In 1987 the University of London awarded him a DSc (Eng).

John will be remembered for many things.  His academic contributions are many and varied, but focus mainly on the importance of understanding geomorphology, and earth surface processes, in civil engineering, with a strong emphasis on slope processes.  As such he was the pioneer of a discipline that has greatly gathered traction and momentum in recent years, and he continued to participate in research and in academic discussions to the very end.  His work on Quaternary history, and in particular of periglacial processes, in contemporary ground conditions, will leave an enduring legacy.  In the landslide field he will perhaps be best remembered for his work on undrained loading, but this in just one of many contributions.

In 2000 his lifetime’s work was drawn together when he presented the fourth Glossop Lecture, which he titled “Reading the Ground: Morphology and Geology in Site Appraisal“.  In the vote of thanks, Professor Eddie Bromhead noted that

“Many friends, colleagues and associates who have seen the lecture in gestation will be aware of the effort which has gone into it, but tonight’s audience have only seen the polished end result. It has been a tour de force.. .As one who has worked with John at various levels over 30 years, I knew what the Fourth Glossop Lecture would be like: a scholarly exposition of the subject, painstakingly researched, beautifully illustrated, and fluently delivered. I knew we would be informed and entertained at the same time.”

John has been a huge influence to many of us who have worked in landslides and in geomorphology, and he will be greatly missed.  His breadth of knowledge, intellectual prowess and exquisite sense of insight were a remarkable combination, wrapped up in a personality showed both warm and humility.  His remarkable attention to detail and insight was often most evident in the reviews of papers submitted for publication.  Many authors have John to thank for improvements that had a profound impact on the quality of the resulting science.  And very often in those comments John would politely note that a few years before he had observed a similar phenomenon or result, with a reference to the paper in which it was described.  Our discipline is so much richer for his many contributions. In the words of  Eddie Bromhead’s vote of thanks:

“John Hutchinson is a known throughout the world as a first-rate original thinker, a meticulous scholar and a prolific writer.”

John’s funeral will take place on 10th January 2012 at 1:15 pm in South London at St Mary the Virgin, Merton Park, SW19 3HJ, and will be followed by a private cremation ceremony. All enquiries to Cooperative Funeralcare on 0208 947 6228.  He was predeceased by his wife Patricia (d. May 2009), and was father to Kristin, Julia and Thomas.

Please feel free to leave comments and tributes to John below.