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Professor Nigel Priestley 1943 - 2014


There was a certain cadence to Professor Nigel Priestley’s life – one that could have almost graced the pages of the poetry he wrote. Nigel, with his worldwide experience in and contribution to seismic engineering, began and ended his career where his passions were first noticed and nurtured – in Christchurch, New Zealand. The very place that was to become the site of the countrys' most dramatic seismic events of recent times.


It was at the University of Canterbury where Nigel would discover his deep-seated passion for earthquake engineering that would shape the rest of his career, and after the region’s devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, it was here where Nigel would use his decades of experience to provide advice for the Royal Commission of Enquiry.


The full loop of Nigel’s experiences encompassed many countries, posts to various companies and universities, and an avalanche of accolades as he transformed the way that the world thinks about earthquake engineering.


According to the most trusted voices in the field, “Nigel was the godfather of earthquake engineering.” In recognition of Nigel’s lengthy career and significant achievements in the engineering field, he was honoured as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2014.


However, to Nigel’s family, his academic accomplishments were secondary to his role as a father and a husband. His daughter, Rebecca, remembers her father’s thoughtful poetry, carpentry skills and the classical music played on his guitar.


“I think it was this mixture of precision and creativity that led to his best work, which was marked by a fresh way of looking at engineering problems,” says Rebecca.


Nigel’s widely recognised and adopted methods include the ‘full metal jacket’ for retrofitting concrete bridge columns, his displacement-based method of seismic design, and PRESSS (precast seismic structural system), which are now standard concepts used all over the world in engineering, seismic design and building codes. From the Thorndon overpass in Wellington to bridges up and down the West Coast of America, Nigel’s research has come to life and is still impacting earthquake-prone cities the world over.


Nigel’s academic appointments throughout his forty-year career were varied, beginning with his post-doctoral entry into the workforce in 1967, as he pushed the boundaries and developed his theories from hypotheses into world-changing seismic engineering concepts.


Nigel completed extensive research on the seismic behaviour of masonry structures in collaboration with Professor Tom Paulay, reinforced concrete columns in collaboration with Professor Bob Park as well as the seismic design of concrete bridges, and displacement-based design. His books include Seismic Design of Reinforced Concrete and Masonry Buildings with Professor Tom Paulay, Seismic Design and Retrofit of Bridges with Professors Michele Calvi and Frieder Seible, and Displacement-based Seismic Design of Structures with Professors Michele Calvi and Mervyn Kowalsky.


After completing a stint at the University of Canterbury in its Department of Civil Engineering, and also serving as President of the New Zealand Society of Earthquake Engineering, Nigel was headhunted by the University of California, San Diego in 1986. The Whittier earthquake in 1987, Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and Northridge earthquake in 1994 were all case studies for Nigel’s work. He then spent the next two decades co-founding and directing both the Department of Structural Engineering at the Jacobs Schools of Engineering, UCSD and the Reduction of Seismic Risk (ROSE) School in Pavia, Italy.


The prestigious awards, honorary doctorates from ETH, Zurich and Cujo, Argentina, and more than 700 publications over the course of his career, are all a testament to Nigel’s hard work, dedication to the field, and love of learning. He did not slow down after retiring from his positions in the United States and Italy, and spent much of his final years consulting after the Canterbury earthquakes as the Deputy Chair of the Department of Buildings and Housing's expert panel.


It was here, in his hometown, that Nigel passed away in December 2014, with his wife and children by his bedside.


Nigel’s legacy lives on, in the numerous practicing engineers in the United States, Europe, Latin America and New Zealand he taught, mentored and encouraged and in the research he pioneered, as well as in the human contribution he made to all those who knew him. Nigel will be sorely missed.




As a way to further honour Professor Priestley’s legacy, the ROSE School’s annual conference was renamed ‘The International Nigel Priestley Seminar.’ The Quake Centre’s Director Dr. Robert Finch chaired one of the sessions here for the May 2015 event.












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