Ralph B. Peck (1912 – 2008)

Ralph B. Peck, Professor Emeritus of Foundation Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign died Monday, February 18, 2008 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  He was born in Winnipeg on June 23, 1912, son of Orwin K and Ethel Huyck Peck, when his father had taken a job as a bridge engineer with the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad in Canada.  Ralph Peck earned a Civil Engineering Degree in 1934 and Doctor of Civil Engineering Degree in 1937, both from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.  He married Marjorie E. Truby on June 14, 1937.  He is survived by his daughter and son-in-law, Nancy Peck (Allen) Young, and son and daughter-in-law, James (Laurie) Peck, and grandchildren, Michael Young and Maia Peck.

Ralph B. Peck was employed from 1937 to 1938 as a structural detailer for American Bridge Company.  In 1938-39 Ralph Peck attended the Soil Mechanics course at Harvard University and was a laboratory assistant to Arthur Casagrande.  From 1939 to 1942 Ralph Peck was an assistant subway engineer for the City of Chicago, representing Karl Terzaghi who was a consultant on the Chicago Subway Project.  Ralph Peck joined the University of Illinois in 1942, and was a Professor of Foundation Engineering from 1948 to 1974.  Since 1974, Professor Peck was a Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, and a consultant in geotechnical engineering, residing in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Professor Peck regularly returned to the University of Illinois twice each year to give a series of lectures and to continue close association with students and faculty members.  In 1987 Ralph B. Peck was celebrated by his friends and former students with a Symposium at the University of Illinois on Art and Science of Geotechnical Engineering at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century.  During the ASCE Geo-Institute Conference in 1999 at the University of Illinois, Ralph B. Peck was honored, and the first ASCE Peck Medal was awarded to Professor Don U. Deere.

Together with Karl Terzaghi, Ralph Peck published in 1948 the most influential text book in geotechnical engineering:  Soil Mechanics in Engineering Practice.  A Third Edition of this book, with additional co-author, Gholamreza Mesri, was published in 1996.  With Walt Hanson and Tom Thornburn, Ralph Peck published in 1953 a most widely used text book on Foundation Engineering.  Ralph Peck built a premiere geotechnical program at the University of Illinois, and succeeded in fulfilling Karl Terzaghi’s hope for Peck “… to educate a generation of geotechnical engineers who retain common sense and their sense of proportion.”

It is impossible to summarize the life of one of the most influential engineers of the twentieth century.  Ralph B. Peck’s life and work have been detailed in two books and a Norwegian Geotechnical Institute publication.  Judgment in Geotechnical Engineering – The Professional Legacy of Ralph B. Peck was published in 1984 by John Dunnicliff and Don U. Deere.  The NGI Publication 207:  Ralph B. Peck, Engineer, Educator, A Man of Judgment was edited by Elmo DiBiagio and Kaare Flaate for dedication in 2000 of the Peck Library next to the Terzaghi Library at NGI.  Ralph B. Peck, Educator and Engineer, The Essence of the Man, published in 2006 by John Dunnicliff and Nancy Peck Young, is the most recent and detailed.  These publications describe Ralph Peck’s life, education, work, including technical articles, students, professional offices, honors and awards, and over 1000 consulting projects during his 50-year professional career.  Ralph B. Peck’s many recognitions include the National Medal of Science presented in 1975 by President Gerald Ford, “For his development of the science and art of subsurface engineering, combining the contributions of the sciences of geology and soil mechanics with the practical art of foundation design.”