Professor John Robert Booker

Professor John P. Carter paid the following tribute to Prof Booker at the meeting of the Academic Forum on Wednesday 16 March 1998.

Professor John Robert Booker was widely regarded as one of the finest researchers of his generation working in the field of theoretical Geomechanics. It was his extraordinary skill in devising rigorous theoretical solutions to many important but difficult practical problems that set John apart, and also underpinned for many years the research of the geotechnical group in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney. His solutions to these problems were both elegant and accessible; they are used widely in engineering practice.

Throughout his career, John Booker produced an enormous body of important published research in over 250 technical papers. His output in a shortened lifetime was more than many top academics in his field produce in much longer careers. He authored and co-authored many seminal papers in the fields of soil mechanics, foundation engineering and environmental geomechanics. He was a co-author of the influential textbook on "Clayey Barrier Systems for Waste Disposal Facilities". He was awarded a higher doctorate in Engineering in 1983 for his "Selected Papers on Analytic Geomechanics."

John’s work was always of the highest calibre and was recognised in a variety of important ways, nationally and internationally. He received many prestigious awards and distinctions, including the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to Geomechanics awarded by the International Association of Computer Methods and Advances in Geomechanics in 1994, and an invitation to present the E.H. Davis Memorial Lecture to the Australian Geomechanics Society in 1995. In recognition of his distinguished research in Geomechanics, he was granted an Australian Research Council Special Investigator Award in 1995. In 1995 he was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, a rare achievement for an engineering academic. In 1997, John was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia, for his life-long services to Geomechanics and Education, a particular distinction that was unexpected by this private man of genuine modesty. While he felt honoured and proud to receive the awards and recognition that came to him, John didn’t seek them and he didn’t place undue importance on them. Indeed, he found little need for public affirmation.

John Booker embraced and epitomized the idea that fundamental theory and practical engineering are symbiotically related, as both are important components for the solution of complex technological problems. While regarded as one of the pre-eminent academic researchers in civil engineering, John’s advice on many practical engineering problems was often sought by the engineering profession. In particular, he was a regular advisor to Coffey Partners International, a major Australian geotechnical consulting company. He was also a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers, Australia.

John Booker spent his early years in Sydney, and it was clear from the memories h e recounted that his was a very happy childhood. He attended Chatswood Primary School until the family moved to Wollongong in 1952. There he attended Wollongong High School, where his real talent and flair for mathematics began to blossom. He achieved one of the top passes in the New South Wales Leaving Certificate in 1959.

John arrived at the University of Sydney in 1960 armed with a cadetship from the N.S.W. Department of Main Roads. His initial aim was to graduate with a degree in Civil Engineering, but this was later modified when his abiding interest in mathematics took over, and instead, he completed an Honours degree in Science, majoring in mathematics. He was strongly attracted to applied mathematics, and so it was only natural that after he graduated in Science he should return to his first choice, Engineering. John felt a great responsibility to apply his prodigious talents wisely. He saw no need to complete another undergraduate degree. He knew then that research was what he loved best and where he could have greatest impact. He undertook PhD studies in Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney under the supervision of the late Professor Ted Davis.

After his PhD studies, John moved quickly through the academic ranks and was appointed as a Reader, and subsequently to a personal chair in Engineering Mechanics at the University of Sydney in 1985. As well as appointments at the University of Sydney, John was also a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, and held Visiting Research Fellowships at Kings’ College London, Cambridge University and the University of Western Ontario. From 1989 to 1994, he served as Head of the School of Civil and Mining Engineering at the University of Sydney, and from 1990 he was Pro-Dean of the Faculty of Engineering. He stood on a variety of important committees at this University, serving the academic community unselfishly, bringing important insight, great commonsense, and an infectious sense of humour to all such activities. He contributed most willingly and well to the Policy Advisory Committee, the Research Committee, and numerous Central Promotions Committees over many years. He was also a member of the Committee that advised the Senate on the selection and appointment of our current Vice Chancellor.

All who came into close contact with him acknowledged John as a wonderful friend and colleague. John always supported and encouraged his students and his colleagues, not only in their professional careers but also in their personal lives. He provided the model for mentoring and for caring. He was forever caring. For the last few years of his life he was a committee member of the Colostomy Association in New South Wales, providing support for others and helping them with their own difficult experiences. All this, while he himself was battling with cancer.

His gentle approach to all people could be seen very clearly in his role as a father. He never seemed to instruct his children, he simply set the example by his own behaviour and attitudes. He impressed his colleagues by his amazing productivity, while also finding so much time for the family he loved so dearly. John always placed his family first in his life, he simply adored them. His academic and personal lives were seamlessly interconnected.

John loved and treated children as equals; and he himself possessed many soft, child-like qualities. All who had contact with him will remember that John also possessed a wonderfully wicked wit of humour. His jokes were often on him, and always the message in the humour was not to take oneself too seriously.

John Booker has left an amazingly rich legacy to engineering and to academia. The large number of John’s former students who are now in academic and high level positions, both in Australia and abroad, is testament to his legacy. He and his work have had a tremendous influence on the education and development of a large number of individuals who have spread John’s philosophy, thoughts, approach and wisdom to many others. He has inspired, and will continue to inspire many individuals, all over the world. In his last days he remarked that he would like to be remembered as a kind man. His wish was never in doubt.

John Booker was born in Sydney on the 24th of July, 1942 and he died peacefully in a Concord Hospital on the 13th of January, 1998, after a long and courageously fought battle against cancer. He was a warm, friendly, caring man who touched many lives. He leaves behind only admirers. He is survived by his wife Liz, daughters Katie and Lucie, sister Judy and mother Joan.

Taken from the minutes of the meeting of the Academic Forum Wednesday 18 March 1998.