Olek Zienkiewicz, 1921-2009

January 22, 2009

Olek Zienkiewicz, the civil engineer acclaimed as the father of the "world-changing" computational modelling technique known as the Finite Element Method, has died.

Although born in Caterham, Surrey in 1921, Professor Zienkiewicz attended primary and secondary schools in Poland before obtaining his BSc, PhD and DSc at Imperial College London. In 1961, he joined Swansea University as head of the Department of Civil Engineering, made his career there and eventually became emeritus professor. He also held teaching positions in institutions including the University of Texas at Austin and Barcelona's Polytechnic University of Catalonia and the International Centre for Numerical Methods in Engineering.

In 1968, Professor Zienkiewicz founded the International Journal of Numerical Methods in Engineering, the first to specialise in computational mechanics. He also published nearly 600 papers and wrote or edited more than 25 books. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering and was made a foreign member of American, Polish, Italian and Chinese learned societies.

Yet his central achievement was pioneering the Finite Element Method's use outside the area of solid mechanics. His books on the subject remain standard reference texts.

The method is commonly used by scientists to predict physical phenomena, such as stresses in structures and flow patterns around aircraft. It works by dividing problem domains into smaller and simpler geometric regions, known as elements, which are typically triangular or quadrilateral. This allows engineers to design components or processes and predict how they will behave with minimal use of expensive experimental testing. This widely used tool was acknowledged in the Universities UK publication, Eureka UK (2006), as one of the top 100 discoveries made in British universities that changed the world.

Professor Zienkiewicz also received honours including the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the Royal Society's Royal Medal, the West German Academy of Science's Carl Friedrich Gauss Medal and the American Society of Civil Engineers' Nathan M. Newmark Medal.

Perumal Nithiarasu, professor of engineering at Swansea University, remembers a man who was highly respected among researchers but also accessible and down to earth. Although "one of the most widely travelled men in Swansea, who was very good at making connections between groups of engineers around the world", he was also "well known within the university. He would talk to anybody, especially young undergraduates and postgraduates. Students said he was like a father to them - he took care of everybody."

Professor Zienkiewicz died of cancer on 2 January 2009 and is survived by his widow Helen, three children and four grandchildren.


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