Start main page content

John Boscawen Burland

John Burland was born in England on 4 March 1936 and came to South Africa with his parents as a small child. He grew up in Johannesburg, matriculating at Park town Boys High School. He enrolled for a BSc (Eng) in Civil Engineering at Wits in 1954, graduating in 1958.

He remained at Wits until mid-1961, working as a research assistant for the then head of the Department of Civil Engineering, Professor Jere Jennings, and simultaneously studying part time for an MSc (Eng), graduating in December 1961. A paper based on his Masters research and published in the same year is regarded as a classic of early research into the mechanics of unsaturated soils.

In June 1961 John Burland went to the United Kingdom where, after working for the consultants Ove Arup and Partners for three years, he started research towards his PhD, which he obtained in 1966.

He became a Senior Research Officer at the British Building Research Establishment (BRE) in 1966 and, within six years, had risen to the position of head of its Geotechnical Engineering Division. In 1979 he was promoted to Assistant Director of the BRE.

In 1980 Burland was appointed Professor of Soil Mechanics at the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, a position he held with great distinction until he retired in 2001.

In 1980 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and, more recently, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, an honour bestowed on very few engineers.

He has been involved in investigations relating to several prestigious structures in the United Kingdom including the Thames Barrier and the underground parking garage for the House of Commons, which had to be constructed very close to and without damaging the ancient Westminster Hall.

However, the achievement that brought him most renown was the operation that prevented the 400-year-old Leaning Tower of Pisa from falling and preserved this wonder of the world for future generations. The commission set up by the Italian government and led, technically, by John Burland, found that the tower was extremely fragile and badly constructed. Its fragility ruled out the use of conventional engineering methods, and eventually it was stabilised by carefully removing 30 tonnes of soil from beneath its foundations on the ‘high’ side, causing it to subside gently to a more vertical position.

During a distinguished career in teaching and research Dr Burland has been honoured in a variety of ways, the most of recent of which was the award of the civil decoration of Commander of the British Empire. He has received gold medals for his contribution to engineering from the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, the Institution of Civil Engineers (the oldest of such institutions), the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Structural Engineers. He has delivered many prestigious ‘named’ lectures, including the Rankine Lecture of the British Geotechnical Society.

In 2006 he was awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Public Promotions of Engineering Medal in recognition of his work in generating interest in engineering amongst the public and the media.

John Burland has maintained contact with Wits, his alma mater, returning on several occasions to lecture. He has always considered himself a teacher first and an engineer thereafter. In his words, “I have always felt that it is in the schools that we should demonstrate the excitement, the challenges and the personal satisfaction of engineering.”

In recognition of his lifelong service to engineering education, engineering research and the practice of engineering the University takes great pleasure in conferring on John Boscawen Burland, the degree of Doctor of Science in Engineering honoris causa. 

In recognition of his lifelong service to engineering education, engineering research and the practice of engineering the University considers it fitting to award to him its highest honour.