Pioneering geotechnical engineer Woods dies at 85

ASCE Distinguished Member Richard D. Woods, pioneering researcher, beloved academic, and a driving force behind the Geo-Institute, has died. He was 85.


When he entered the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, perhaps his most influential mentor was a professor who had known the great Karl Terzaghi himself, and who interested him in foundation engineering in general and soil dynamics in particular.

Woods, Ph.D., P.E., D.GE (Ret.), Dist.M.ASCE, NAE, was professor emeritus of UM since 2000, continuing his more than 35 years there as faculty. After a formal “retirement,” he taught at Notre Dame University one semester each year for nearly a decade. Reestablishing himself in Ann Arbor, he once again taught graduate classes and advised Ph.D. students at UM throughout the 2010s.

Woods is best known for his pioneering research in soil dynamics, foundation engineering, and engineering geophysics. He authored more than 80 refereed publications and chaired 21 doctoral theses. Among his numerous awards are ASCE’s Collingwood Prize and the Terzaghi Lectureship from the Society’s Geotechnical Engineering Division. He was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 2003.

He moved into soil mechanics and dynamics based on a perceived need during the Cold War era and for foundations for nuclear power plants. The need for knowledge in this area and the opportunity to contribute to it was the most attractive thing for him. As he saw it, there were important problems to be solved only by geotechnical engineering.

Before beginning his career at the University of Michigan, Woods served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, conducted research at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirkland Air Force Base, Ohio, and taught at Michigan Technological University, in Houghton. He joined the UM faculty as an assistant professor in 1967.

Woods played an important role in the United States Universities Council on Geotechnical Education and Research (USUCGER), and his geotechnical engineering consulting efforts would continue through 2020.

In addition to being a giant in the field, Woods was an extremely gracious and kind colleague and mentor who loved the University of Michigan and his friends and collaborators throughout the world.

When he was once asked a “what if” about doing it all over again, he replied, “I wouldn’t change anything about my career. I’ve had a very lucky sequence of positions and people to work with. I’ve been happy with the institutions I’ve been associated with, and they have supported my learning and professional interests.”


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