Nicholas Ambraseys, 1929-2012

February 7, 2013

A world-renowned seismologist with particular expertise in the historical study of earthquakes has died.

Nicholas Ambraseys was born in Athens on 19 January 1929 and studied at the National Technical University of Athens. He then moved to Imperial College London, where he obtained a DIC (Diploma of the Imperial College, associated with a degree from the University of London) followed by a PhD.

After starting his career as a lecturer in civil engineering at Imperial (1958-62), Professor Ambraseys worked briefly in the US, as associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Illinois, and in Greece, as professor of hydrodynamics at the National Technical University. He returned to Imperial, where he spent the rest of his career, serving as lecturer and then university reader in engineering seismology. He was named professor of engineering seismology in 1974.

He founded Imperial’s Engineering Seismology Section in 1968 and was its head from 1971 until he retired in 1994. After retirement, Professor Ambraseys became senior research investigator at the institution and continued to hold grants, supervise PhD students and publish papers right until the end. Two of his papers are currently under review and are likely to be published.

After an early focus on how dams in the Himalayas respond to earthquakes, he turned to broader themes, as reflected in co-authored publications including Re-appraisal of the Seismicity of Iceland (1999) and The Seismicity of Central America (2000). He took part in a number of post- earthquake field missions, and his reports fed into the reconstruction plans for earthquake-damaged cities such as Skopje and Managua.

Alongside these major contributions to the field, Professor Ambraseys developed a particular interest in analysing historical accounts of earthquakes. This culminated in a landmark study published in 2009, Earthquakes in the Mediterranean and Middle East: A Multidisciplinary Study of Seismicity up to 1900.

Colin Kerr, operations manager in Imperial’s department of civil and environmental engineering, described Professor Ambraseys as “an earth scientist and an engineer who could also speak about half a dozen languages - the kind of polymath who is rare these days when everybody is so specialised. Though he could be slightly stern when playing the serious professor, he also had a mischievous sense of humour. He never used business cards himself but kept a few in his pocket from local handymen, which he would sometimes hand out at conferences. A plumber in Putney was very surprised to receive a Christmas card from an eminent Japanese seismologist.”

Professor Ambraseys died of leukaemia on 28 December 2012 and is survived by his wife Xeni.

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