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Stanford Report, April 21, 1999

Memorial Resolution: Jack R. Benjamin



Jack Benjamin, Professor Emeritus of Civil and Environmental Engineering, died on August 26, 1998 in Menlo Park, California at the age of 81, after a brief illness. Jack came to Stanford in 1948 and retired in 1973. He was well known as a pioneer in the application of statistical and probabilistic methods to civil and structural engineering.

Professor Benjamin was born July 24, 1917 in Olympia, Washington. He entered the University of Washington in 1935 and graduated Summa Cum Laude in 1940 with B.S. and M.S. degrees in Civil Engineering. At graduation, he was the President's Medalist for having the highest academic record in the entire University. While at the University of Washington he was President of the local chapter of Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honorary society. He also worked with Professor F. B. Farquharson on the investigation of the spectacular failure of the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge.

After graduation from the University of Washington, Jack went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for further studies. In 1942 he received the Doctor of Science degree with a major in civil engineering and a minor in mathematics. His thesis was titled "Impact Research" and dealt with impact problems and dynamic stress measurements.

Following graduation from MIT, Jack entered the U. S. Army and served four years during World War II, rising from the rank of Second Lieutenant to Major. He served overseas in the European Theater of Operations and, with the war finally over, was honorably discharged from the army in February 1946.

Later in 1946 Jack joined the faculty of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he taught structural engineering for two years in the Department of Architecture. He was given a three-year appointment as Assistant Professor, but in 1948, after two years at RPI, he left for a position at Stanford, where he stayed for the remainder of his academic career.

At Stanford Jack began as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering (1948 to 1951), then became an Associate Professor (1951 to 1959), and Full Professor (from 1959 on). He retired from the University in 1973 and became Professor Emeritus on September 1st of that year. While at Stanford he served on several department committees, was an advisor to graduate students, and often provided structural engineering advice to the University on the design and remodeling of campus buildings. For instance, Jack developed the structural design of the three-dimensional concrete frame in the main dining room in the Faculty Club.

The first textbook Jack wrote was titled Statically Indeterminate Structures, published by McGraw-Hill in 1959. This book was noted for its practical approach to the understanding of structural behavior and has now become a collector's item because of its unique approach to the subject.

His second book, on statistical methods, was titled Probability, Statistics, and Decision for Civil Engineers. This book was co-authored with Professor C. Allin Cornell and published by McGraw-Hill Book Company in 1970. This book, which is still used as a course text and reference, opened up new ways of thinking for an entire generation of civil and structural engineering students.

Among Jack's many distinguished doctoral students are college professors, researchers, and professional engineers who have continued to pursue his principal goal, namely, providing the methodologies to address quantitatively the many uncertainties in civil and structural engineering.

Jack's unique graduate courses in structural design are still the source of discussion whenever his former students meet. The courses simulated professional practice in various imaginative ways. A typical one-hour in-class exercise involving a structural design and analysis would require hours of time, unless one used insight-driven simplifications and approximate analysis tools. Jack would engage the students in professional-office business simulations driven by random opportunities and losses, emphasizing the uncertainties inherent in loads and structural performance. A student's grade on a test often would depend on the decisions that were made in the face of these uncertainties. On two occasions after retiring, Jack was recalled to active duty to teach classes and conduct research in his specialties of structural design and probabilistic methods.

Besides his graduate-level teaching, Jack conducted research on probabilistic methods as applied to structural engineering. His pioneering work in this area led to the establishment of probability-based provisions in structural codes throughout the nation and now the world. One of his research projects (conducted with Professor Harry Williams) concerned the behavior of shear walls in buildings, the results of which are still being used by engineers engaged in building design.

Because of his interests in practical and realistic design methods, Jack was frequently called upon to lecture to professional engineering groups, such as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), of which he was a Fellow, and the American Concrete Institute (ACI), of which he was a Member. He was also a Registered Civil Engineer in the State of California, a member of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), the Society for Experimental Stress Analysis (SESA), the American Institute of Timber Construction (AITC), Sigma Xi, and Tau Beta Pi. Jack received the Alfred M. Freudenthal Medal of ASCE for his life-long contributions to the discipline of structural reliability.

In 1974, shortly after retiring from Stanford, Jack started a consulting firm, Engineering Decision Analysis Company (EDAC), in Palo Alto. Jack was President of the company and remained with EDAC until 1979. While there, he conducted numerous projects concerned with seismic risk analysis. Later, with a group of Stanford structural engineering graduates, he formed a second company, Jack R. Benjamin and Associates, Inc. currently headquartered in Menlo Park. As a consultant, Jack continued to serve the university, helping to survey and assess the damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. He also maintained an interest in technology, in particular computers. With the growth of the PC and programming languages, he became an avid, self-taught programmer in C++, Java, etc.

Jack was devoted to his family and greatly enjoyed his four children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. A major tragedy occurred in his life when his wife, Sarah, died soon after his retirement from Stanford. Another tragedy came when his son, Fred Cameron Benjamin, also died some years later. Jack is survived by three children: Sue Benjamin Jones of Boise, Idaho, Kay Benjamin Durfee of Jacksonville, North Carolina, and Roy Bradley Benjamin of Sunnyvale, California.

Jack played golf for many years and also loved to go fishing. This latter hobby led him to become a fan of Airstream Trailers, and at one time he was president of the Wally Byam Caravan Club, which consists of Airstream owners who travel together.

A memorial service for Professor Benjamin was held on September 1, 1998 at the Los Altos United Methodist Church, Los Altos, California. Present were his family, Stanford colleagues, former students, and many long-time friends. A Memorial Fund in his honor has been established in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.


Haresh C. Shah, Chair

C. Allin Cornell

James M. Gere

Martin W. McCann, Jr.