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News Release

Structural seismic design expert Nigel Priestley dies

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Nigel Priestley, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Structural Engineering, passed away Dec. 23, 2014.

San Diego, Calif., Jan. 6, 2015 -- Nigel Priestley, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Structural Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, passed away peacefully on Tuesday Dec. 23 in Christchurch, New Zealand, surrounded by his wife, Jan, and children, after a long battle with cancer.

Priestley had a tremendous worldwide impact in earthquake engineering, and particularly, in the field of Structural Seismic Design. Among many achievements, he led the way to the seismic design and retrofit of bridges in the State of California. Today, Caltrans follows many of the recommendations that stemmed from his research. He was also instrumental in the development of performance-based seismic design methods, which were first used to design container wharves for the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and form the basis of the current ASCE/COPRI code for the design of container wharves. Furthermore, he was also instrumental in the development innovative precast pre​-​stressed seismic systems for PCI-NSF Precast Seismic Structural Systems project.

Priestley’s career started in New Zealand. At the age of 20, he obtained a bachelor’s in Civil Engineering from the University of Canterbury and completed his Ph.D. three years after at the same institution.  He went on to work for the New Zealand Central Laboratories where he carried pioneering research in structural concrete involving complex laboratory and field full-scale testing.

From 1975 till 1986, Priestley taught at the University of Canterbury where he performed acclaimed research work on pre-stressed concrete focusing on thermal and seismic design of pre​-​stressed concrete tanks, ductility based design of masonry structures, thermal and seismic design of bridges and seismic design methods incorporating rocking foundations.

In 1986, Priestley joined the Department of Applied Mechanics and Engineering Sciences at UC San Diego, and was a founding faculty of the Department of Structural Engineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego. With damaging earthquakes in Whittier in 1987, Loma Prieta in 1989 and Northridge in 1994, Priestley contributed to the unprecedented growth of the Charles Lee Powell Structural Engineering Laboratories.

During the time as an UC San Diego active faculty, Priestley also published two highly regarded books: “Seismic Design of Reinforced Concrete and Masonry Buildings,” with Prof. Tom Paulay, and “Seismic Design and Retrofit of Bridges,” with Profs. Michelle Calvi and Frieder Seible.

Priestley retired from UC San Diego in 2002 and went on to co-found the Post-graduate European ROSE School, based at the University of Pavia, Italy, to train of students worldwide on ways to reduce seismic vulnerability.

As a result of the devastating 2010-11 earthquake sequence that affected the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, Priestley was appointed Deputy Chair of the Department of Building and Housing there to study the failures and catastrophic collapses experienced by four buildings, which form a very important part of Royal Commission of Enquire held there to formulate recommendations for future developments.

Priestley was also an acclaimed educator and left a legacy of outstanding Practicing Engineers and University Professors in the United States, Europe, Latin America and New Zealand. For his research contributions, he received many awards as well as honorary doctorates from ETH Zurich and the Universidad de Cuyo Argentina. Last September, he was bestowed with the New Zealand Order of Merit for his contribution to Structural Engineering.

Priestley’s funeral was held in Christchurch, New Zealand on Jan. 3, 2015.

Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering