Memorial Tributes: Volume 26
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  • JOHN T. CHRISTIAN (1936-2022)



    JOHN THOMAS CHRISTIAN, who passed away June 5, 2022, in Alexandria, Virginia, at age 85, was an engineer with an international reputation in soil dynamics, earthquake engineering, geotechnical reliability, computational mechanics, and engineering management. Having completed three degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he spent most of his career in the Boston area.

    John pioneered the use of computer methods and numerical analysis in geotechnical engineering. He coauthored the first general purpose computer program for the analysis of slope stability with circular and noncircular failure surfaces. He also coauthored Numerical Methods in Geotechnical Engineering (with C.S. Desal; McGraw-Hill, 1977), Productivity Tools for Geotechnical Engineers (with A. Urzua; BiTech Publishers Ltd., 1996), and Reliability and Statistics in Geotechnical Engineering (with G.B. Baecher [NAE 2006]; Wiley, 2003). Despite his many contributions to numerical analysis, John was strongly of the opinion that the most important aspect of geotechnical modeling is the understanding and characterization of soil and rockmass properties.

    He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 2, 1936, to Thomas and Evelyn (née Maestri). When he was young his family relocated to Brazil where his father ran the telephone company. John attended Escola Americana do Rio de Janeiro, then left for high school at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating in 1953. He enrolled at MIT and earned his bachelor’s (1958), master’s (1959), and PhD (1966) degrees in civil engineering.

    In 1959 he met his future wife, Lynda Gregorian, at a get-together of MIT and Wellesley College students. She was a third-generation Wellesley student majoring in ancient Greek (BA 1960); they played chess and discussed prepositions. On June 6, 1960, two days after her graduation, they married in her parents’ backyard, which was blanketed in Oriental carpets courtesy of her father, Arthur T. Gregorian, the famed Boston merchant. Together, they became a spectacularly educated couple—in 1968 Lynda received her PhD from Harvard University in comparative literature, and in 1975 her JD from Boston University.

    John interrupted his education (1959–63) to serve as a lieutenant with the US Air Force in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, receiving the USAF Commendation Medal. His PhD dissertation, titled “Plane-strain deformation analysis of soil” and coadvised by T. William Lambe (NAE 1972) and Robert V. Whitman (NAE 1975), established his early leadership in both theoretical soil mechanics and the numerical modeling of soil deformation and strength.

    Doctorate in hand, he was hired as a professor of civil engineering at MIT, until he left in 1973 to join the Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation of Boston. Over the next 21 years he was involved in the design, evaluation, and construction of nuclear power plants, hydroelectric projects, geothermal plants, fossil-fueled power plants, and other facilities for energy generation and distribution. In addition, he worked extensively on dike projects for the Danish government; indeed, he may have been largely responsible for the company’s landing those major contracts. Later on, his experience with the Danish dikes came in handy when he was appointed to two expert committees on levees after Hurricane Katrina.

    He also had a variety of corporate management functions at Stone & Webster, including oversight of computer activities, corporate computer disaster recovery, and standards and qualification of software. In 1989 he was appointed corporate vice president and executive vice president of SW Advanced Systems Development Services.

    When he retired in 1994 John became a much-in-demand engineering consultant. He also served as Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (2015–22). When he first joined the faculty, the dean asked him what he thought the program should prioritize. He said UMass Lowell needed to focus on excellent academics to lift itself above its reputation as being a hands-on, working man's extension school. When the dean met with him again a week later and asked again what John's vision was, he said Lowell should focus on hands-on education and practical applications and not try to be too research-focused or theoretical. The dean pointed out that this was exactly the opposite of his previous answer. John sat back, thought a minute, and said, “The problem is, I actually believe in both, and I believe in both of them equally, so my answer is probably not going to work out well in a survey format.” This dual perspective informed his approach to teaching at the university.

    John’s expertise included slope stability analysis, earthquake engineering, dynamic analysis, evaluation of soil liquefaction, amplification of seismic waves, dynamic soil-structure interaction, and geotechnical reliability. His geotechnical engineering work included earth dam analysis and design, evaluation of the stability of tailings and industrial waste storage, evaluation of flow through porous media and earth dams, nuclear power plants, solid-waste landfills, foundation engineering, offshore facilities, mooring facilities, and pipelines. During his long career he performed geotechnical analyses for several on-site nuclear spent-fuel storage facilities and for the stability of mining waste piles. He applied probabilistic concepts to geotechnical engineering, winning the ASCE Thomas A. Middlebrooks Award in 1996 for a paper on the uses of reliability approaches to the design of embankments.

    For his expansive contributions, in 1999 John was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and in 2001 he became a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He was also honored by the Boston Society of Civil Engineers and other organizations.

    He chaired (2002–04) the National Academies committee that reviewed the $14.6 billion Boston Central Artery/Tunnel Project (the “Big Dig”), which proposed management changes to expedite its completion, as well as the committee to review the Bureau of Reclamation’s procedures for security of dams (2006–08) and Committee on Improving Principles and Guidelines for Water Resources Planning by the US Army Corps of Engineers (2008–11). He served as a member of the committees on New Orleans Regional Hurricane Protection Projects (2005–09), Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration (2007–09), and the State of the Art and Practice in Earthquake Induced Soil Liquefaction Assessment (2013–16), among others.

    For the NAE he was active in section nomination, membership, peer, and executive committees from 2001 to 2021.

    In addition to serving on the editorial boards of several professional journals, he was editor in chief of the ASCE Journal of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering and later served as its ombudsman. He chaired the ASCE Geotechnical Engineering Division and US National Society of the International Society of Soil Mechanics (ISSM) and Foundation Engineering, and he served on the board of the ISSM – Geotechnical Engineering.

    Later in his career he chaired the Engineering Accreditation Commission of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and made it his mission to improve the quality of engineering education by urging more diversified curricula. He once told his students that if they expected to present their proposals to lay people, they needed to know how to communicate in English, not only in mathematics.

    More than an intellectual leader and important consultant, John cared deeply for his protégés and other young engineers around him. Among his major legacies is his impact on the profession through the many colleagues he mentored. Another legacy is the John T. Christian Memorial Scholarship established at the University of Massachusetts Lowell in his honor to support engineering students in an internship. 

    John was broadly educated in the classics, art, history, mathematics, and other fields, and affectionately known to his family and close friends as “the man who knows everything.” Famously, he once recited the names of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence when the question arose at a professional dinner. He also was an active volunteer for Reading for the Blind and other charitable activities. His mathematical and engineering expertise was a particular asset as knowledgeable readers of mathematical texts were uncommon.

    John’s daughter Shirin adds that he loved photography and pet parrots, and that he crafted dollhouses for her mother, with whom he enjoyed traveling the world. His son Douglas recalls that he and his father often sailed their “Baby Lightning” Blue Jay on Casco Bay, and that John “was a great lover of animals, so we would sail out to small islands where seals would be sunbathing on Maine’s rocky coastline.”

    After 62 years of marriage, Lynda passed away just a fortnight after John, on June 20. They are survived by Shirin C. Samiljan of Benicia, California, Douglas Christian of Alexandria, Virginia, and five grandchildren.