Obituary: Professor Hugh Sutherland OBE, world-renowned civil engineer and emeritus professor

Born: 22 January, 1920, in Glasgow. Died: 20 December, 2011, in Glasgow, aged 91

F or a boy who left school with absolutely no idea of what he wanted to do in life Hugh Sutherland enjoyed an extraordinarily successful career.

Despite his lack of an undergraduate degree, he rose to the top of academia, became a world-renowned civil engineer and expert in soil mechanics and Dean of the Faculty of Civil Engineering at Glasgow University, where he mentored countless students from across the globe.

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Even after retiring, he continued to serve the university as the first director of its trust, earning an OBE for his services to the institution where he gave his first lecture half a century earlier, following a spell in intelligence investigating the German bombing campaign.

Born in Glasgow’s Maryhill, he was the son of a plumber whose family was related to the legendary soprano Dame Joan Sutherland. He attended Dunard Street Primary School and, briefly, North Kelvinside Secondary, before winning a scholarship to Allan Glen’s School, with which he maintained a lifelong connection.

Though he was a prize-winning pupil, as he later explained in his memoirs, “University never really entered my mind.” In his final year at school he sat the Glasgow Corporation and Civil Service exams but ended up starting his working life with the North British and Mercantile Insurance Company.

His plan was to become an actuary. However, after three months as a dogsbody delivering letters around Glasgow city centre banks and insurance companies, he ditched the job and became an apprentice to the Glasgow Corporation Master of Works and city engineer.

During his training he studied part-time, in the evenings at the Royal Technical College, for his qualifications with the Institution of Civil Engineers, of which he eventually became vice president.

When the Second World War broke out he volunteered for the services but was told he was too young. He was invited to attend the University Joint Recruitment Board and was advised to continue his studies.

Later he was seconded to work with Dr Oscar Faber and Partners, based in London. Though he was in a reserved profession, designing and building munitions factories and such like all over England, it troubled him that he had not been allowed to go off to war like most of his contemporaries.

However, he did get his chance to do his bit when he became an assistant intelligence officer. Seconded to the Ministry of Defence, after a brief course in bomb identification, his role was to assess the damage left by the German bombing campaign and give an indication of the success of any future campaigns.

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He continued his studies during this time and once, while working in Liverpool, insisted on poring over his books under the dining table during an air raid – much to the horror of his landlady who implored him to join them in the shelter.

He then became an instructor to army officer cadets and was sent to Glasgow University to lecture to them in surveying and general engineering. He developed an interest in the emerging discipline of soil mechanics and foundation engineering and helped to develop the first British laboratory in this field, at Glasgow University.

The world centre for the study of soil mechanics was at Harvard University, in the United States, and he successfully applied for a Sir James Caird scholarship to study there where he was involved in investigating the potential effects of a nuclear blast in the area of the Panama Canal.

He declined the offer of a staff job at Harvard and later worked on projects at an iron ore mine in Ontario and in Winnipeg, where he investigated complaints about vibration damage caused by trolley buses – and found himself in a sticky situation. Having taken seismic equipment to the home of a woman who had complained to the local authority, he prepared to measure the vibrations. As the body is most sensitive to vibrations in the prone position, he lay on her bed to conduct the test. And when the woman’s husband arrived home asking him: “What the hell are you doing?” he coolly replied: “Well, believe it or not, I’m just waiting for the next trolley bus.”

Several years later, following his work with the Winnipeg Floodway Diversion project, he was made a Freeman of the City of Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, having returned to Glasgow University, he became a reader, then professor and the first holder of the Cormack Chair of Civil Engineering before becoming dean of the faculty.

Throughout his career, he had declined numerous requests to move to London. He turned down the opportunity to become president of the Institution of Civil Engineers because he would have had to have gone south – along with various offers of work in the construction industry.

A perfectionist, and much in demand as an expert witness, he was also an excellent speaker, blessed with a great sense of humour and magnificent comic timing. In addition he had an incredible memory – a gift immortalised in a poem by Glasgow University chancellor Sir William Fraser Kerr for Sutherland’s 90th birthday celebrations.

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As the first director of Glasgow University Trust he had an amazing global network of contacts and the power to recall the names of students and details of their families stretching back to 1947.

“We used to talk about how we would have to download him – everything was in his head,” said Cathy Bell, the university’s director of development. “He was an absolutely amazing man.”

He also maintained an interest in sport, particularly rugby and golf. He was awarded an honorary blue by Glasgow University Athletics Club, was a member of the West of Scotland Cricket Club and a past president of Buchanan Castle Golf Club in Drymen.

A prolific correspondent, up until six months before his death, he was still writing five or six letters a day in longhand, preferring it to e-mail.

Married in 1953 to Sheila, who he adored, he was widowed four years ago and is survived by his daughter Moira, son Hugh, grand daughters Ali and Keris, and great-grandson Callum.