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Alberta Order of Excellence member Norbert Morgenstern

Dr. Norbert R. Morgenstern D.Sc., F.R.S.C.

Norbert Rubin Morgenstern is a University Professor of Civil Engineering and an internationally recognized authority in the field of Geotechnical Engineering.

Professor Morgenstern was born in Toronto on May 25, 1935 and graduated from the University of Toronto in 1956 with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Civil Engineering. He was awarded the Athlone Fellowship for post-graduate studies in the United Kingdom and after a short period in professional practice, Norbert Morgenstern departed for London to study Soil Mechanics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology at the University of London.

The distinguished leader of the group at Imperial College, Prof. A. W. Skempton, F.R.S., notes, “Here he so distinguished himself that we gladly took the opportunity of converting him into a research assistant, and in 1960 he came on staff as a Lecturer. Certainly to the advantage of the college, and I think to his own benefit, he then stayed with us for a further eight years.”

During this period, Professor Morgenstern was awarded the Diploma of Imperial College and the Doctor of Philosophy (University of London) while he taught, conducted research and established a reputation as a consultant in applied earth sciences. It was at that time Dr. Morgenstern made the first of his many lasting contributions to his subject.

The field of Geotechnical Engineering was started in Western Canada by the late Dean R. M. Hardy, Dean of Engineering at the University of Alberta for many years. He and the late Professor S. R. Sinclair encouraged Dr. Morgenstern to return to Canada and join the University of Alberta, which he did in 1968 as Professor of Civil Engineering. He was named Professor of Civil Engineering in 1983 in recognition of his teaching, research and service accomplishments.

Professor Morgenstern’s first research was into the mechanics of slope stability as it applies to the evaluation of landslides and the design of dams. This early research received recognition by the award on two occasions of the British Geotechnical Society Prize. The fruits of this research quickly passed into professional practice.

Following his return to Canada, he systematically began to build the University of Alberta into one of the leading geotechnical schools. Key colleagues were attracted to join him and outstanding graduate students were recruited both from across Canada and elsewhere. The 1970’s brought with them expanded engineering challenges in the development of both the arctic and the Alberta oil sands.

Dr. Morgenstern and his colleagues and his students laid the framework for modern permafrost engineering, which has influenced all aspects of geotechnical design in the arctic. At the same time, studies into the geotechnical aspects of the Alberta oil sands contributed significantly to the enhanced safety and economy of developing the resource while research into tailings dams and other waste facilities contributed to improved environmental integrity within the mining industry.

Recognition followed with the award in 1971 of the Walter Huber Engineering Research Prize from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Canadian Geotechnical Society Prize, election to Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1975 and the Legget Award in 1979, which is the highest award of the Canadian Geotechnical Society.

In 1981, Professor Morgenstern was invited to deliver the Rankine Lecture, which is the highest recognition of the British Geotechnical Society. In proposing a vote of thanks, Dr. A. C. Meigh said: “… What is also impressive is that Morgenstern and his colleagues have focused their attention and their research efforts on the major problems confronting the community within which they live, to the benefit not only of that community but others elsewhere. Surely this is the hallmark of a centre of engineering excellence.”

In the 1980’s Professor Morgenstern broadened his range of active interests to include offshore engineering, foundation engineering and environmental matters.

He has received honorary degrees from the University of Toronto and Queen’s University. He has been elected a Fellow of the Engineering Institute of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Engineering. Other major awards include the Centennial Award of the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta and the Sir Frederick Haultain Prize in Science from the Government of Alberta.

Professor Morgenstern has not only made outstanding contributions through his teaching and research but also as a consulting engineer. His work as a consultant on water development projects, landslide studies and other resource development projects carried him to over twenty countries on six continents. He has assisted in technology transfer to developing countries through the United Nations and other agencies. Closer to home he has advised on numerous challenging foundation problems, he has been a consultant to many of the arctic development projects of the past two decades and has been closely associated with both operating oil sand mines.

Dr. Morgenstern has served his professional community through numerous committees and task forces that have assisted government and professional societies at all levels. These include Chairman, Earth Science Grout Selection Committee, National Research Council of Canada (1975-76); President, Canadian Geoscience Council (1983); President, Canadian Geotechnical Society (1987-91); and President, International Society for Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering (1989-1994). Community involvement has also included the Edmonton Symphony Society and other organizations. In 1988-89 Dr. Morgenstern assisted the United Nations in the organization of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction which was initiated in 1991.

Professor Morgenstern has been dedicated to excellence in engineering combining teaching, research and practice. But above all Professor Morgenstern has been a much-admired teacher, always accessible to his students, present and past, and an equally admired colleague, always ready to listen and to help. He takes great pride in the achievements of his students, many of whom achieved early recognition. His work has been centered in Alberta, but has been of benefit to his profession throughout Canada and the world at large.