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Stanford Report, March 13, 2002

John Blume, 'father of earthquake engineering,' dies


A funeral was held on Friday for John A. Blume, known as "the father of earthquake engineering," who died at his Hillsborough, Calif., home on March 1 at age 92. A public memorial service will be held at Stanford's Memorial Church at 4 p.m. April 18 -- the anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. A reception at the Faculty Club will follow the service.

Blume, who had been suffering from Parkinson's disease for the last few years, died with his wife, Jene, by his side. A consulting professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), Blume's affiliation with Stanford began in 1929 as an undergraduate and continued for the next 73 years as student, teacher and benefactor.

"Dr. Blume was a pioneering researcher who, through extensive publications and leadership in the profession, exerted tremendous influence on the development of modern earthquake engineering practice," recalled CEE Professor Anne Kiremidjian, director of the John A. Blume Earthquake Engineering Center at Stanford. In addition to donating to the center, Blume also endowed a chaired professorship in CEE and a university scholarship fund for research in earthquake engineering.

"Dr. Blume made singular contributions to the understanding of structural dynamics, earthquake effects on buildings and strong ground motions," Kiremidjian said, noting Blume's major role in developing seismic design procedures and earthquake building codes that have become a mainstay of modern construction.

Today's level of maturity in designing buildings that are earthquake resistant, not earthquake proof -- "Don't say 'proof' unless you're talking about whiskey," Blume once told a newspaper reporter -- is due to many years of dedicated work by a few innovative researchers and engineers including Blume, several of his Stanford colleagues observed.

Earthquakes shaped his life

Earthquakes played a major role in Blume's life, even as a child. Born on April 8, 1909, in Gonzales, Calif., east of Monterey, he grew up hearing stories from both sets of grandparents about how they survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. His father, Charles A. Blume, a builder, participated in the reconstruction of the Palace Hotel and other buildings in San Francisco following the disaster.

As a young man, Blume worked for his father as a steel erector and rigger. In 1925, he witnessed the destruction of Santa Barbara by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, which killed 13 people and severely damaged the majority of commercial buildings. Blume helped with the rescue work and said later that this event, along with his grandparents' experiences in San Francisco, raised in him a desire to "do something" about earthquakes.

Four years after the Santa Barbara tragedy, Blume enrolled at Stanford to study engineering and created a unique study plan -- a mix of courses in geology, architecture and mathematics. In those days, textbooks referred to buildings as "static" -- a notion Blume rejected.

In 1933, he received a bachelor's degree with distinction in civil engineering and continued his studies toward a graduate degree with Professor Lydik S. Jacobsen, designer of the world's first multi-story dynamic building model for shaking table experiments. In 1934, Blume constructed the second and most elaborate multi-story model to date -- designed to simulate the motion of a 15-story building in San Francisco. Blume's dynamic model was constructed with five degrees of freedom per story and could be repeatedly tested without being damaged.

To pay for his education, Blume took part-time jobs as a laborer, carpenter, truck driver and cannery worker. He also played the guitar and banjo, and was second tenor in a quartet that sang with dance bands at the Palace Hotel -- the building his father helped restore. Blume's sense of humor was legendary, friends recalled, as were his sports car escapades.

In 1935, he received the degree of Engineer -- although it would not be the end of his Stanford education.

Innovative engineer

While still enrolled as an undergraduate, Blume took his first engineering job with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, forerunner of today's U.S. Geological Survey. In 1935, he was hired as a construction engineer on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and later worked for Standard Oil Co. of California and for the structural engineering design firm of H. J. Brunnier.

In 1945, he established John A. Blume and Associates (JAB) in San Francisco, which soon became the preeminent consulting firm in structural and earthquake engineering. In 1970, JAB merged with URS Corp., forming URS/John A. Blume and Associates.

The company designed or analyzed numerous construction projects for earthquake resistance -- among them the 2-mile long Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco and the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Other California projects included the restoration of the State Capitol building in Sacramento, the first artificially constructed offshore island for oil production and the supersonic wind tunnel at Moffett Field near Mountain View. His firm also conducted earthquake research on dozens of California public school buildings; on more than 40 nuclear power plants in the United States and in six other countries; and on deep-water harbors. Other research projects examined the structural response to underground nuclear explosions and sonic booms.

The 'dropout' returns

In 1964, at the age of 55, Blume returned to Stanford to study for his doctorate -- "after 30 years as a dropout," he liked to say. Blume decided that he needed to update his understanding of modern techniques in civil engineering such as matrix and computer analysis of structures and statistical methods. He began research on his doctoral dissertation under the direction of Professor Donovan H. Young.

Although he headed a large consulting firm, Blume pursued his studies diligently, taking course work for an entire academic year. He asked for no special treatment and studied in the same manner as other students -- including working late-night hours at the computation center.

On Jan. 6, 1967, 34 years to the day after receiving his bachelor's degree, Blume was awarded a doctorate in civil engineering.

Leadership and awards

Blume helped establish the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) in 1949; the mission of the nonprofit organization is to reduce earthquake loss and risk around the world. In addition to serving on the board of directors, Blume was named EERI's first secretary and was elected president from 1978 to 1980. He was named an honorary member of EERI, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the New York Academy of Sciences and the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California; and was a fellow of the American Concrete Institute and the International Association of Earthquake Engineering.

During his long career, Blume authored more than 150 papers, articles and books. In recognition of his pioneering contributions, he received many awards and honors including ASCE's Leon S. Moisseiff Annual Award in 1953, 1961 and 1969; ASCE's Ernest Howard Annual Award in 1962; and a 1986 medal from the Seismological Society of America. In 1969 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. The Building Industry Conference board also named him "Man of the Year" for his outstanding contributions to the industry and for his service to the community.

Stanford educator and donor

Blume's dedication to education and research led him to provide fellowships that have supported many graduate students in structural engineering at Stanford. He also urged the university to establish the Blume Earthquake Engineering Center in 1974.

"The center draws the brightest students from around the world carrying on John's legacy of excellence and leadership," Kiremidjian noted.

He also endowed the John A. Blume Chaired Professorship, recognizing the outstanding contributions of a CEE faculty member to the field of earthquake engineering. The first holder of the chair was Professor Haresh Shah, also a co-founder with Professor James Gere of the Blume Center. The chair is currently held by Professor Helmut Krawinkler, former co-director of the Blume Center.

Blume is survived by his wife, Jene, of Hillsborough; his sister, two nieces, three grandnieces, a stepson and two step-granddaughters.

John A. Blume