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Rolf Eliassen, pioneer of environmental engineering, dies at 86

Rolf Eliassen, professor emeritus of civil engineering, founder of Stanford's environmental engineering program and scientific adviser to four presidents, died in Palo Alto on Friday, March 14, after a fall. He was 86.

Eliassen already had a distinguished 25-year career in civil and sanitary engineering when he came to Stanford from MIT in 1961 to establish what would become one of the nation's leading environmental engineering programs. At Stanford he also founded one of the university's most popular undergraduate engineering courses.

"His presence here made an awesome difference," said Jeffrey Koseff, chair of civil engineering. "He was truly one of the 'steeples of excellence' in the mold of [Stanford's late provost] Frederick Terman."

From 1961 to 1973, Eliassen served as adviser to the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy. An expert on wastewater treatment and disposal of solid and nuclear wastes, he was a member of the General Advisory Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and consultant to the U.S. Public Health Service, the departments of Interior, Commerce and Defense, and California's Department of Water Resources.

A 1970 article in Business Week dubbed him "the professor with the answer to pollution," and noted that "Eliassen set up the guideposts of his profession." In 1971, he received for his profession's highest honor, election to the National Academy of Engineering. He was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Academy of Environmental Engineers.

Civil engineering Professor Perry McCarty was the first of several faculty members recruited by Eliassen. McCarty, who also came from MIT, recalled that Eliassen was attracted to Stanford because of a vision well ahead of its time: that interdisciplinary work, combining expertise from many fields, would be necessary to simultaneously tackle problems affecting the quality of water, land and the environment. Stanford offered a unique opportunity to work across disciplines in this fashion, McCarty said.

Eliassen soon introduced a course for undergraduates, CE 170, Man and His Environment. Though the class met at 8 a.m. and Eliassen freely handed out lecture notes, 400 to 500 students attended every lecture; in some years, the course was held in Memorial Auditorium. When Eliassen retired, he handed the course over to instructor Gil Masters, and it continues under the name Environmental Science and Technology.

"It was the first course in the nation that took an integrated approach to environmental problems: air pollution, water pollution and solid waste management," Masters said. "It was such a new approach, it was written up in journals. On Earth Day, in 1970, this course was already there, running full steam ahead for students who wanted to find out something about the environment."

The course was open to all students, not just engineering majors. "I want people to come, I want people to think and I want to educate the voters of the future," Eliassen told friends.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Feb. 22, 1911, Eliassen was educated in New York public schools and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees and earned a doctoral degree in civil and sanitary engineering in 1935. After employment in engineering firms, he served as assistant professor of engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1939-40, then as associate professor and professor of sanitary engineering at New York University from 1940 to 1949.

In 1941, Eliassen married the former Mary Hulick of Easton, Pa. From 1942 to 1946, he served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, achieving the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He supervised all sanitary engineering facilities in nine Western states.

In 1949, he joined MIT as a professor of sanitary engineering, supervising research and teaching on treatment of water, sewage and industrial wastes. His major research there concerned how to incorporate high-level radioactive wastes into stable glasses ­ a technology that McCarty said has just recently been put to work, 40 years later, in Department of Energy nuclear sites. In 1950, Eliassen received the George Westinghouse Award of the American Society for Engineering Education for excellence in teaching.

Eliassen joined the faculty at Stanford in 1961 and was named Silas H. Palmer Professor of Civil Engineering in 1969. He became Palmer Professor Emeritus upon his retirement in 1973.

Beginning in 1961, he also was a partner in one of the nation's leading consulting environmental engineering firms, Metcalf & Eddy Engineers of Boston and Palo Alto. He was chairman of the board from 1973 until he was named chairman emeritus in 1988.

Memorial services were held on March 18 at the First Congregational Church in Palo Alto.

Eliassen is survived by his wife, Mary, of Palo Alto; his sons, Thomas Eliassen of Carlisle, Mass., and James H. Eliassen of Colorado Springs, Colo.; and five grandchildren.

The family has requested that donations in his memory be made to a charity of the donor's choice.


By Janet Basu