11/14/2008 08:00:00

George W. Housner, 97

George W. Housner, often considered the father of earthquake engineering, passed away on November 10 at the age of 97. Housner died of natural causes in Pasadena, California.

Housner was Braun Professor of Engineering, Emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Born in Michigan in 1910, Housner received his bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan and his master's and PhD degrees from Caltech.

Housner's interest in earthquake engineering began after the Long Beach quake of 1933. After receiving his PhD, he worked for the Army Corps of Engineers before advising the Air Force during World War II.

Housner spent much of his time during the war in North Africa, where he devised an equation that helped increase the success of pilots navigating barrage balloons--designed to prevent attacks on oil fields--and a new tactic for Air Force bombers to attack bridges, improving their effectiveness.

In 1945 he was honored with the Distinguished Civilian Service Award given by the U.S. War Department.

After the war, Housner joined Caltech as an assistant professor of applied mechanics. He later became the Braun Professor before retiring in 1981. He was named a Caltech Distinguished Alumni in 2006, the Institute's highest honor bestowed on graduates.

Housner's interests included civil projects, such as California's statewide water system. His earthquake-engineering techniques were used to strengthen the dozens of dams and aqueducts running through California--one of the first times modern earthquake engineering was used for this purpose.

"George really has to be considered one of the most original and clearest thinkers ever within the entire engineering profession," said John Hall, professor of civil engineering and dean of students at Caltech.

His expertise in earthquakes led to his chairing a National Academy of Sciences engineering committee evaluating the damage left by the 1964 Alaska earthquake. Soon after, he became a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1972 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Housner was the founding member of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, and a medal is given by the organization each year in his name. He was also instrumental in the formation of the International Association for Earthquake Engineering and Caltech's Earthquake Research Affiliates.

"George was a man of great intellect, which he used diligently to reduce the impact of earthquakes on our society," said Tom Heaton, professor of engineering seismology at Caltech. "He was one of those special people who changed our world."

In 1981, Housner was given the Harry Fielding Reid Medal from the Seismological Society of America, awarded annually for outstanding contributions in seismology and earthquake engineering.

In a 1988 White House ceremony, President Ronald Reagan awarded the National Medal of Science to Housner. The award citation honored Housner "for his profound and decisive influence on the development of earthquake engineering worldwide. His research contributions have guided the development of earthquake engineering and have had an important impact on other major disciplines."

After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California, Governor George Deukmejian named Housner chair of the board investigating the collapse of freeways and bridges. He also served as chair of the Caltrans Seismic Advisory Board.

Housner never married and will be cremated and interred at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, California.

Written by Jon Weiner