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John Neville Hutchinson 1926 –2011


World-renowned expert in Quaternary surface processes, and their engineering implications.

John Hutchinson was born in Coventry, studied Civil Engineering at Birmingham University, graduating with a First class Honours degree in 1947. His career started as an engineer involved with opencast coal sites and heavy foundations but in 1950 John moved to consultants Rendel, Palmer & Tritton from where he was drafted to major works in Great Yarmouth as Deputy Resident Engineer. In 1957 John joined the Swedish (1957-58) and later the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (1958-61) returning to the UK in 1961 to fill a research post at the Building Research Station. Here John pursued a PhD at Cambridge into the stability of natural slopes, work based on his study at the BRS of coastal landslides in SE England, and establish a link with Soil Mechanics at Imperial. Here he was appointed Senior Lecturer (1965), Reader in Soil Mechanics (1970), Professor of Engineering Geomorphology (1977 - the first in this subject) and awarded his DSc (Eng) by the University of London in 1987. His work on the subject of slope stability was recognised and honoured by many distinguished awards and invitations as a Keynote Lecturer, both here and overseas. John published over 100 refereed publications, including a number of classic papers, the last being published a few months before his death.

John’s contributions to engineering geology were fashioned by fascinating circumstances. His failure to enter Cambridge (Latin let him down) resulted in his coming under the influence of Professor L J Wills at Birmingham, where geology field trips to Llangollen and the Forest of Dean made a huge impression - so much so that he nearly changed subjects (just like the young Karl Terzaghi in his day). It was on these excursions that John’s fascination with the Quaternary was kindled (as with the young Alec Skempton). John set off on his own field trip as soon as he could, this time to the Alps, unguided, with his friend Stanley Grainger, to follow the E-W “High Route”. The wonder of the surface processes of the Quaternary were by now well rooted in John’s appreciation of the ground and it was natural that while working later as Deputy RE at Great Yarmouth the ground engineering that caused his meeting with the Ministry of Works archaeologist Charles Green sparked more than a simple entry in the Site Diary. It was with Charles that John later published his first paper – not on engineering, but on The Making of the Broads (1960). John later saw this as a turning point, for prior to that his experience, especially in Norway, had revealed to him the power of soil mechanics in back-analyses of near-surface natural processes when combined with an understanding of site geology.

Established at Imperial, John became an enthusiastic supporter of the Quaternary Research Association serving on its first Council (1968-71) and becoming its President (1985-88) and eventually Honorary Member. He became a Fellow of the Geological Society and a Chartered Geologist, his knowledge of the geology of slopes being above that elsewhere in the Society. It was this unique mixture of engineering and geology, presented so gently to geologists that endeared John to many in the Society, and was acknowledged by his invitation to give the 4th Glossop lecture Reading the Ground: morphology and geology in site appraisal. Indeed, this expertise prompted the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute to invite John to complete Terzaghi’s unfinished text on Engineering Geology – which he declined.

Despite the meticulous attention to detail John lavished on his research, there was a side to him that was seemingly oblivious to the consequences of his actions; good friends left stranded while John rummaged for clues, samples sent through the post, arriving pulverised and leaking from envelopes, exam questions written on the back of paper containing others – the wrong ones being presented at the Finals, and so on. John was a quiet and generous man who retained his way of doing things in a gentlemanly and individual way. Charlotte Elliot’s beautiful hymn “Just as I am…” sung at his funeral, was indeed a most fitting reflection of the man and his life.

John’s wife, Patricia, predeceased him; this was a terrible loss at a time when John was also seriously ill. He is survived by his three children, Kristin, Julia and Thomas.

Michael H de Freitas