Professor Jack William Roderick 1913-1990

By H.B. Harrison and H.G. Poulos


Professor Jack William Roderick died at his home in Glenhaven, New South Wales, on 27 November 1990 at the age of 77 years. He had retired in 1978 from the position of Challis Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney which he had held since 1951. He was appointed to the Chair at the age of 37 and he and his wife Carol came from Cambridge to spend the second half of their lives in Sydney. Carol predeceased him by some four years.

Jack William Roderick was born at Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, on 21 September 1913. His parents, Thomas Watkin Lewis Roderick and Mercy Lloyd Roderick, had emigrated from Wales just before the First World War. His father was employed by the Canadian Railways. Serving in France during the war in the Canadian Army Thomas died of wounds in 1917 and is buried at Bailleul. By this time, it is clear, Roderick and his mother had returned to Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. There he received his schooling at Newport High School in what was then Monmouthshire. An old school friend, Eric J. Thomas, advises that he lived quietly with his mother and aunt but that from early on he had a strong sense of purpose and an understanding of the direction in which his talents lay:

At our morning assemblies and services at Newport High School, we faced the Honours Board with the school motto above, "Nid da lle gellir gwell". Few spoke or understood Welsh, but we all knew its meaning: "Nothing is good where better is possible". Consciously or not, Jack Roderick seems to have taken that message to heart, and tackled life accordingly.

Mrs Mercy Lloyd Roderick of 32 Ronald Road, Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales, died in 1969 at the age of 91 and was in receipt at that time of a Canadian war widow's pension. rofessor Roderick always retained his Canadian citizenship and one can understand his reasons.

Early Career

Roderick went on from the Newport High School to the University of Bristol as a Kitchener Memorial Scholar. Here began a very fruitful association with Professor J.F. Baker (later Lord Baker of Windrush) who interested his student in structural research. Roderick's first degree was awarded in 1935 and was followed by an MSc (1937) and a 'PhD (1941), all from the University of Bristol. An MA (1945) came later from the University )f Cambridge. Much later, he was awarded m honorary Doctor of Engineering by the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, n 1969 when he was the President of the Institution of Engineers, Australia. The occasion, on 6 June 1969, was his laying of the foundation stone for the engineering complex at Newcastle University.

Roderick's first employment after graduation was in Bristol in 1935 where he worked as an engineering assistant with H. Young and Co., Structural Engineers, on the design of steelwork for industrial buildings. Next he worked from 1935-37 with the Bristol Aeroplane Company as an engineering assistant attached to the Experimental Department, concerned with the design and construction of prototype aircraft notably the Blenheim and Beaufort. Small framed pictures of these aircraft on the office wall behind him used to distract his students at Sydney in the early 'fifties. During the period at Bristol he engaged in part-time research into the behaviour of suspension bridges for which he received the MSc degree. A paper on this subject, submitted to the Institution of Civil Engineers gained a Miller Prize and the James Forrest Medal.

From 1937 to 1939 he was a research assistant in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Bristol and worked under the direction of Professor J.F. Baker for the Welding Research Council of the Institute of Welding. He studied the behaviour of rigid frame steel structures and was interested particularly in the post-elastic behaviour after yielding and before complete collapse occurs. A comprehensive theoretical and experimental study was made of beams and portal frames and a start was also made on the problem of the continuous column in a building frame. The results of these investigations were found to be of considerable use in the design of war-time protective structures. Roderick was awarded his PhD in 1941 for a thesis on this work.

In 1939 he was appointed Lecturer in Civil and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Leeds and there he taught surveying, strength of materials and the theory of structures. Research on steel structures continued but was hampered by war time conditions. Roderick was attached to the Ministry of Home Security as a Technical Intelligence Officer engaged on the survey of bomb-damaged steel structures.

A bright spot in a dismal, war-time December of 1941 was when he married Iris Caroline Margaret White.

The Cambridge Years

Roderick was seconded to the University of Cambridge in 1944 by the British Welding Research Association where he rejoined Professor J.F. Baker, now at Cambridge, to continue the programme of research started at Bristol in 1937 into the design of steel structures. Baker was a dynamic leader of research whose pre-war interest in structures had intensified as a result of his war-time experience in examining bomb-damaged structures in Britain.

By 1945, Roderick had become an Assistant Director of Research in the Engineering Department at Cambridge. In this capacity, while continuing with the research initiated in the previous year, he became responsible for the conduct of a number of other investigations into the behaviour of metal structures. Those with which he was most closely concerned were:

The Development of the Simple Plastic Theory of Flexure of Mild Steel: The theory was critically examined and verified experimentally; extended to cover the ease of a member subjected to the combined action of bending and axial load; and consideration was given to its application to steels of different carbon content.

The Behaviour of Continuous Stanchions in Rigid Frame Structures: The experimental work on plane frames provided an explanation of the mechanics of failure of the continuous stanchion bent about its minor axis, and demonstrated the unsound basis of the existing methods employed in their design. Exact and approximate analyses were derived for the determination of the axial load to cause failure of the stanchion.

Plastic Design of Rigid Frame Structures: Attention was also given to the development of satisfactory design methods for rigid steel frame structures. A method was evolved based upon the researches referred to above. In this way it was possible to show that considerable economy could be achieved while still maintaining an adequate margin of safety. This work had an influence on specifications and codes of practice then current in Great Britain, and Roderick was a member of committees responsible for their preparation.

Tests on Full-Scale Structures: As a final stage in the verification of the principles on which the design methods depended tests were carried out on several full-scale structures. An account of this work was given in a series of reports. Roderick received a Telford Premium from the Institution of Civil Engineers for certain aspects of this work.

Stability of Compression Members in Aluminium Alloy Structures: A study was made of compression members of thin-wall open section in aluminium alloy. An experimental study was made of a variety of structural shapes of common occurrence in structural engineering and a satisfactory explanation of behaviour was given.

During this period Roderick lectured in advanced Theory of Structures to undergraduates taking Part II of the Mechanical Science Tripos. He was also seconded for the greater part of 1946 to the British Welding Research Association to supervise the setting up of that body's Research Station at Abington, near Cambridge. A final appointment at Cambridge was to a University Lectureship to take charge of post-graduate courses based on the above researches. This was in 1951.

The University of Sydney (1951-1978)

By 1951 Baker's team had made great progress in understanding what is now called the plastic behaviour of steel structures and team members were consequently very much in demand when professorial chairs became vacant in the UK and overseas. This was the situation at the University of Sydney where Professor W.A. Miller was about to retire from the Challis Chair of Civil Engineering which he had held since 1926.

Sydney's Vice-Chancellor at the time was Sir Stephen Roberts, previously Head of the Department of History. One of his staff in that Department, John Manning Ward, was then at Cambridge on study leave. He was Roderick's first contact with a Sydney colleague and, in due course, a future Vice-Chancellor at Sydney University. Having only recently been appointed Challis Professor of History at Sydney in 1949, Ward felt some particular empathy with the new Challis Professor of Civil Engineering. John Ward was to tell Roderick much about life on the other side of the world. It may be assumed also that Ward had reported back to Sir Stephen upon the personality and characteristics of a potential appointment in Civil Engineering at Sydney.

Roderick arrived in Sydney in late 1951 to take up the Challis Chair of Civil Engineering. He set about the business of making friends and this was not necessarily aided by certain confusions about his name and how he should be addressed. The Senate had appointed Jack William Roderick and some of his old friends addressed him always in these terms. However his wife Carol introduced him as John and this was the term used by many personal friends. But the vast majority of his students (in excess of 1,500 in 27 years) and his working colleagues did not bandy first names lightly with this rather formal Englishman and by them - and that includes the authors of this memoir - he was addressed for many years as Professor Roderick, or 'Sir'.

When he first arrived in Sydney, Roderick insisted that proper standards should be preserved and he gave an example by wearing coat and gown to lectures, even on the hottest and most humid of days. His lectures were admirable in preparation and delivery and there was never any real need for those ex-students of his who joined his staff to go to outside sources for teaching techniques. He provided the best practical example. At the same time, he was always quite clear in his advice to junior staff that their careers would be furthered by concentrating upon research while not neglectingtheir teaching. To him the best teacher in a tertiary engineering environment was one carrying out research at the frontiers of the subject.

It took many years for Roderick to bend before the sometimes harsh nature of the Australian environment. We remember him going to his final undergraduate lecture on a hot October day in 1978. It had taken twenty-seven years, but at last he had discarded his coat and gown!

A top priority for Roderick in moving into and rejuvenating an established department was the fostering of an active research environment. Coinciding with his arrival was the University's introduction of the PhD degree, the first being awarded to W.H. Wittrick in Aeronautical Engineering in 1951. The Master of Engineering Science degree vas established a little later and was first awarded in 1956. By 1971, Roderick had supervised some twelve successful MEngSc candidates and their work involved effectively full-time research. His first doctoral candidate at Sydney was B. Rawlings who received his PhD in 1963. By he time of his retirement in 1978, Roderick ad actively supervised ten successful PhD candidates. He demanded at all times a very high standard of presentation of a submitted thesis. It has been well said that 'many research students writhed under his determined requirements but have later blessed the opportunity they were given to acquire the habit of writing with clarity, precision and even in some cases elegance'.

Research on Composite Structures

In the 1960s, Roderick initiated a programme of research into the analysis, behaviour and design of composite structures of steel and concrete. With support from the New South Wales Department of Main Roads and the steel industry, he encouraged a group of staff members and research students to investigate the behaviour of these structures, pursuing the aim of designing more economically. He maintained a detailed interest in this research for the rest of his career, published several papers on the subject, and organized several post-graduate courses. He was chairman of the Standards Association Committee on Composite Structures. In this work, his dominant interest was to take advantage of the strength and stiffness gain that exists when the concrete elements act compositely with the steel skeleton. These elements consist primarily of the concrete slab overlying steel girders in buildings and bridges, and the concrete encasement to columns that is normally present for fire protection of the steel columns.

In the case of composite beams and columns, Roderick maintained a consuming interest in reconciling elastic-plastic theoretical predictions, using the most modern computer methods, with experimental measurements of deformation and strength. He was also concerned with the long-term effects of creep and shrinkage of the concrete on the flexibility and strength of the structure, and with the effects of slip at the interface between the steel and the concrete. He derived detailed analytical solutions for the latter effect, and extended the work to include the behaviour of simply-supported and continuous girders under repeated loading leading to fatigue failure.

Interaction with the Engineering Profession

From the time he first arrived in Sydney in 1951, Roderick wasted no time in letting the engineering profession generally, and the University's administration in particular, know that the new Professor of Civil Engineering at Sydney was someone to be taken into account. In the Institution of Engineers, Australia, he was Chairman of the Sydney Division by 1962, a Member of Council from 1959 to 1977, and President in 1969. He was a Fellow of both the Institution of Structural Engineers and the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, and a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He was a member of the Council of the Standards Association of Australia from 1957 and took a very active part in the up-dating of structural design codes, onerous work that is currently being actively continued by his ex-student, Professor N.S. Trahair.

For some time prior to his joining the Engineering Department at Cambridge, he had worked as technical secretary of the British Welding Research Association at nearby Abington. Subsequently he took a great interest in the affairs of the Australian Welding Research Association and was Chairman of its Provisional Council.

He was one of the first engineers to be elected to the Australian Academy of Science where he served as a Member of Council and for two years as Secretary. He served on the Advisory Council of CSIRO (1957-63) and on the Martin Committee on the Future of Tertiary Education in Australia. He was active on the Commonwealth Defence Research and Development Committee as well as on the Australian Research Grants Committee. For six years in the 'seventies he was a member of the National Capital Planning Committee. At the same time he was a Commissioner of the Electricity Commission of New South Wales. He served on the Rhodes Scholarship selection committee for New South Wales and was long a member of Sydney Rotary Club.

The same energetic participation is evident in Professor Roderick's university activities. In the 'sixties he was a Fellow of Senate, and he was Dean of Engineering for some ten years. During this time he initiated and largely planned the translation of the entire Faculty from the old campus to the new Darlington site. He held positions on the Buildings and Grounds Committee the Research Committee, the Advisory Committee on Establishment, the Proctorial Board, the Library Committee and the Patents Committee, and he was Chairman of the Appointments Board.

He had a subtle sense of humour that included the ability to laugh at incongruities in undue formalities and pomp on the part of others and himself. He spoke to one of us after a meeting of the Proctorial Board in the early 'seventies. As always he was appropriately dressed and he explained how he and a group of similarly attired university dons in the ornate Senate Room had just listened at great length to a group of bare-footed, bemedalled and bearded students earnestly expounding the facts of life!

He had great rapport with the late C.A. Hawkins, a distinguished graduate of the Department of Civil Engineering in 1924 who became Chief Engineer of the New South Wales Department of Main Roads. Roderick worked closely with Hawkins in the setting up of the Civil Engineering Graduates' Association. This Association was one of the first such to be established at Sydney University and it provided a mechanism to contribute substantial finance in 1960 for the provision of modern laboratory equipment on he new Darlington campus. This activity vas continued in 1973 under P.R. Pettit's direction to fund in particular the first minicomputer laboratory at Sydney University. This was very appropriately named the C.A. Hawkins Computer Laboratory. It was to work effectively for more than fifteen years. Roderick used the occasion of the 1978 Graduates' Association Open Day to set out his vision for the future direction of engineering education. At the annual meeting of the Civil Engineering Graduates' Association in 1981, under the residency then of W.A. Stinson (Year of 1954), the Chancellor of the University of ,Sydney, Sir Hermann Black, officially named the J.W. Roderick Laboratory for Materials and Structures. Roderick's student and successor in the Chair of Civil Engineering N.S. Trahair, delivered the address, 'One Hundred Years of Structural Testing'.

Of all John Roderick's achievements within the university and bearing directly on he strength of the Department of Civil Engineering, perhaps the setting up of the 'Postgraduate Civil Engineering Foundation in 1968 was the most far-sighted. Its first president was B.N. Kelman, a fellow graduate in 1950 with P.R. Pettit. The Foundation soon became an integral part of the Department of Civil Engineering. It provided a way of raising research funds and supervising their effective expenditure. John Roderick was essentially a research man and he never lost sight of this primary purpose of a modern university department.

Roderick - The Personal Side

It is appropriate at this stage to seek explanations for Roderick's tireless cultivation of scientific and professional groups outside Sydney University in parallel with his interests in internal university politics. After all, there was enough on the plate of a Head of a Department of Civil Engineering in the mid-part of this century to satisfy the most energetic scholar with internal affairs alone. Some might say that such activity, bordering on the frenetic, was evidence of a thoroughly extroverted personality that thrived on taking the public position on all matters. In our opinion, John Roderick's character was far from this. He was in fact a shy and certainly a very self-conscious person. He drove himself without mercy in all these activities because he saw it as an essential part of the role of a professorial Head of Department at a time when the concept of multiple chairs within Schools and Departments had not yet developed.

It does not necessarily follow that the head of a university department should develop an intense interest in all aspects of that department, merely as a consequence of having no close family. But this certainly was the case with John Roderick and in his departmental activities he was actively supported by his wife Carol. Mention has been made above that he regarded the research activities of the School as of fundamental importance and so it is interesting and very appropriate that after Carol's death, John Roderick once more sought the advice of John Manning Ward, by then Sydney University's Vice-Chancellor, upon the setting up of a fund that would benefit from the bulk of his estate. In the terms of his will, the School of Civil and Mining Engineering is able to call upon the J.W. and I.C.M. Roderick Research Fund so that his very practical influence upon the research directions of the School will continue well into the next century.

John Roderick was a good friend and, having no close family of his own, he took a sympathetic and genuine interest in the family concerns of his friends and particularly of his research students and staff. His advice in personal matters was always very balanced and mature.

We mentioned at the outset that John was born in Canada. Shortly before his death, one of us made bold to ask him why he had not received from Australian state and federal authorities the sort of formal recognition that one would expect for a person who had contributed so much in educational and professional matters. His reply was simply to draw attention to the fact that he had always been a Canadian citizen, a fact that one can better understand in the light of his family history. It is interesting that while in his later years he came more and more to regard himself as an Australian in attitudes and philosophy, his friends and students continued to regard him as the quintessential Englishman; and all the while he was a Canadian citizen in good standing!

Roderick was a Christian not firmly committed to any formal religious group but he never disparaged and indeed had a great respect for those of his friends who felt such a need. On one memorable occasion, he played an active role in a wedding ceremony at Wesley Chapel when, in full formal dress he gave away the bride. Like many who grew up between the world wars, he saw the future of mankind as dependent upon the application of science and he devoted his life to that end. And as again with many of his generation, his experience from the Second World War showed that science could equally well be a curse as a blessing, depending upon the motives of its controllers. We suspect that within these considerations are part of the explanation of why a young couple would leave the beautiful environment of Cambridge in the late 'forties and settle permanently on the other side of the world.

Much has been heard recently in the media about the comparative strengths of some public figures in the UK and Australia and the key words have been those of 'style' and 'substance'. Some were spoken of as being strong in the one aspect and weak in the other. It occurred to us that in Jack William Roderick we had a man equally strong in both style and substance. Style was something that he certainly had in abundance, and it gave him a natural authority in the conduct of affairs. But in the academic world in particular, nothing will generate turmoil faster than style without substance. Yet he ran his Department of Civil Engineering at Sydney efficiently and smoothly as Head for the entire twenty-seven years of his appointment. He showed his staff how to teach and how to do research, and nothing gave him greater pleasure than when two of his research students went on to become heads of engineering schools in the UK. First was his very first PhD student, B. Rawlings who went to Sheffield in 1967. Quite recently his last PhD student, J.M. Rotter, was appointed Head of Department at Edinburgh.

Australia was indeed fortunate when Jack William Roderick decided to come to Sydney in 1951 and to spend the second half of his life there. It is unlikely that we will see his kind again.


We acknowledge the assistance of Professor Roderick's former colleagues in preparing this memoir, in particular, Associate Professor P. Ansourian, Associate Professor R.Q. Bridge and Professor J.M. Rotter.

The Profession of a Civil Engineer: Papers written for Jack William Roderick by former students, edited by D. Campbell-Allen and E.H. Davis (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1979), p.3.

The University of Sydney: Annual Report 1991, p.122.

H.B. Harrison, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Sydney.
H.G. Poulos, Coffey Partners International Pty. Ltd.

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, Vol.9, No.3, 1993. This biography has been taken from The Australian Academy of Science

See also Roderick's Doctor of Engineering Testamur