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Photos > Working Life > Professor Harry George Poulos - Speech - delivered at his Testimonial Dinner, 8th May, 2004,

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submitted by George Poulos on 11.05.2004

Professor Harry George Poulos - Speech - delivered at his Testimonial Dinner, 8th May, 2004,

Professor Harry George Poulos - Speech - delivered at his Testimonial Dinner, 8th May, 2004,
Copyright (2002) Harry Poulos

Presentation of gifts by the Ladies Auxillary, Kytherian Association of Australia.
Katherine Economos, President of the Ladies Auxillary, Professor Harry Poulos, Professor John Carter, and the wife of the Consul of Greece, in Sydney, Polixeni Raptakis. [Polixeni is a Castellorizian-Australian, born and raised in Perth.]


8th May, 2004, Hellenic Club, Sydney.

"I am extremely proud to have been born a Kytherian, and extremely grateful to be recognized so generously tonight by my fellow Kytherians." HGP, 2004.

For a brief overview of the Life and Achievements of Professor Harry Poulos, please refer to the People section - subsection - High Achievers - of

For impact of the Poulos [Tzortzopoulos] families in the evolution of Katoomba, NSW - see entry under History - General History - Poulos -Tzortzopoulos.

On Saturday 8th May, at The Hellenic Club Restaurant, 5th Floor, 251-253 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, the Kytherian Ladies Auxiliary organised a Testimonial Dinner for Emeritus Professor Harry Poulos.

The evening was a sellout, with 150 Kytherians, Greek-Australians and Australians, packing out the restaurant.

Professor Harry Poulos
The University of Sydney
College of Sciences and Technology
Faculty of Engineering
Department of Civil Engineering
NSW 2006 Australia.

What follows is the speech that Professor Harry Poulos delivered.

It is important because it provides insights into the extraordinary character of Harry Poulos. Insights to which we would otherwise not be privy.

It also provides added details about the working life of Professor Harry Poulos.

We thank Professor Harry Poulos very much for permission to re-print his speech.

SPEECH – 08/05/04

I wish to express my sincere gratitude and thanks to John Carter for his kind words, and to the Kytherian Ladies Association for organizing this wonderful testimonial dinner. I am overwhelmed at being recognized in this way.

The Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset said of the human condition: “I am myself and my circumstance”.
a. Following this definition, I will describe something of myself (from my own subjective viewpoint);
b. Then I describe something of my circumstances and my professional work.
c. Then, I will take the liberty of sharing with you some of my views on a number of issues relating to engineering and to modern university education.

First, regarding myself:
d. I was born in Katoomba, and enjoyed a very happy childhood, despite the somewhat difficult times during and after WW2. My mother, father and brother gave me love and support and enabled me to have opportunities that they were not able to have.
e. I went to school in Katoomba, and was fortunate to have some excellent “old-style” teachers who instilled discipline but also cared for their students.

On reflection, I think that I have made 5 major decisions in my lifetime after leaving school, and these have had a defining influence on my life. Remarkably, all 5 of these decisions have proved to be fortunate ones.

f. THE FIRST- Was deciding to go to Sydney University to study Civil Engineering. This was not a pre-meditated decision. I had in fact wanted to become a pharmacist, but could not find a pharmacist who could take me on as an apprentice. On the advice of one of my high school teachers, I chose engineering, because he said that civil engineering was a suitable career for someone who had some mathematical ability.

g. I have to mention at this stage my good fortune to be able to stay with my late Uncle Angelo Zantey and Aunt Stella in Sydney while studying. Their generosity and kindness was a major factor in my being able to go to University, and I regarded them as my second set of parents.

h. THE SECOND: After finishing my undergraduate course, I was persuaded by the late Prof. Ted Davis to continue my studies and to carry out research for a PhD degree. The subject in which I chose to study was Soil Mechanics, a relatively new subject at that time (1961) which I did not then understand very well, but one which was intriguing because of its complexity and the opportunities it seemed to provide for expanding knowledge.

i. THE THIRD: Towards the end of my PhD studies, I met again a most attractive young lady, Maria Langley, that I had first met at my brother Theo’s wedding. A few months later, I took the advice of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who said:

”My advice is to get married: if you find a good wife, you’ll be happy. If not, you’ll become a philosopher.”

j. I am pleased to say that I did not become a philosopher, and we are still happily married and have four wonderful children, George, Elena, James and Peter, all of whom are now married (and all but James are here tonight) and 7 energetic but delightful grandchildren as a consequence.

k. THE FOURTH: Soon after Maria and I were married, I made my 4th big decision, to return to Sydney University as a Lecturer, rather than to continue working as a consulting engineer, which I had been doing for almost a year after completing my PhD. This was again a fortunate decision, as I was able to teach and better understand the subject of soil mechanics, and also to do research into foundation systems and how to better design them. It also gave me the opportunity to travel overseas, and I spent 3 periods of sabbatical leave in the USA with my family, which was extremely beneficial to my career. My 2 periods at MIT in Boston were particularly important, as I worked with some of the world’s leading people in my area, including Professor T. William Lambe. In these days of instant communication, it is difficult for us to understand how important such contacts with eminent overseas persons were in those days in the late 1960’s, when an international phone call cost a substantial proportion of one’s weekly salary, and when Australia was very much isolated from the rest of the world.

l. THE FIFTH: The last major decision I took was in 1989, when I decided to accept an offer to join the consulting firm of Coffey Partners International, while retaining a part-time appointment with the University. This has enable me to blend research with its application to practice, a combination which I have found to be both stimulating and satisfying.

m. Most of the general public are largely unaware of the subject of soil mechanics, which in its broader context, is now known as geotechnical engineering. Despite this lack of awareness, everyone is influenced, often in rather subtle ways, by this “hidden” profession.

n. Let me try and illustrate with some examples the range of human activities that geotechnical engineering influences.

o. Some of you may have come here tonight via the Eastern Distributor tunnel. This has had a major input from geotechnical engineers (as do all tunnels) because the tunnels and the surrounding ground must be made strong enough to withstand the weight of the ground and the traffic above the tunnel, and the disturbance caused by boring the tunnel must be kept under control to avoid damaging existing buildings in the vicinity. In addition, the water inflow from the ground into the tunnel must be controlled so that the tunnel does not leak excessively or flood.

p. Many of you will have driven north along the F3 freeway and observed the deep cuts into the sandstone that enabled the road to be constructed. These cuts must be made as steep as possible to minimize the amount of rock that has to be excavated and disposed of, but must not be so steep that they collapse and endanger the people using the road. Again, geotechnical engineers will have been instrumental in designing the slope of the cut to balance economic requirements with safety requirements.

q. Anyone flying into or out of Sydney to go overseas will use the International Terminal at Sydney airport. This has been a major foundation challenge for geotechnical engineers because the airport is located on an area where there is very soft soil, and where, if the foundations were inadequate, air transport would be paralyzed. The design of the pile foundations for that terminal has again relied heavily on the expertise of the geotechnical engineer.

r. Those of you who have parked in the Opera House Car Park may not be aware of the role that geotechnical engineers played in its construction. It is one of the largest span caverns in the world, and the shallow depth of rock above the roof required that the rock be reinforced with many steel rock bolts, and that the excavation of the rock be carried out with extreme care and precision, and with careful measurements being taken to check that there was no damage to nearby historic buildings, including Government House. These were tasks that my colleagues and I at Coffey were fortunate enough to undertake.

s. I could go on and quote many other examples, but hopefully you will realize that all the infrastructure that you use and the buildings that you visit and occupy have all involved significant input from geotechnical engineers.


I would like to mention a few projects with which I have been involved, and which have had some influence on my professional career and on the research work that I have been involved with.

t. I-95 embankment in USA – This was a prediction event held in the early 1970’s. Prof. Davis and I were among a dozen persons from around the world invited to predict what would happen to a section of interstate freeway near Boston when additional earth was added to it. We were moderately successful in this, and through this experience, I developed a greater understanding of a number of issues related to the construction of road embankments on soft clay soils, some of which are relevant to the upgrading of the Pacific Highway in northern NSW.

u. North Rankin platform – This was a major offshore oil and gas platform which encountered major problems with the foundation piling. The cost of remedial works for the foundations was about A$350 million, andf I was part of a team that investigated the causes of the problem, and ways of repairing the foundations. This work influenced my research for over a decade in the 1980’s. I became involved in issues related to calcareous soils, piling in such soils, and the effects of repeated loading arising from extreme wave action on offshore oil and gas platforms. An outcome of this work was a text book that I published on Marine Geotechnics.

v. The Newcastle earthquake – 1989. The Institution of Engineers Australia set up an investigation into the reasons for the extensive amount of damage that this moderate earthquake caused. My involvement in this investigation led to research into the response of foundation piles during earthquakes, and the effects of soil liquefaction on pile behavior.

w. Emirates Twin Towers Dubai. We at Coffey were the foundation designers for the Emirates twin towers in Dubai, currently the 9th and 17th tallest buildings in the world. This work led to improved approaches to analyzing and designing piled raft foundations, and to an appreciation of the problems in predicting settlements.

x. Hong Kong Buildings on Inadequate Piles – Following on a series of foundation problems in Hong Kong due to inadequate design and construction methods, I was involved in developing methods of correcting uneven settlements of tall buildings, and of analyzing the behavior of pile groups containing defective piles. Over the past three years, we successfully applied these techniques to two 41-storey buildings that were tilting excessively.

y. Egnatia Highway, Greece – This project involves the construction of nearly 700 km of freeway linking the west coast of Greece with the Turkish border to the east, and will be a major European road. Some of this road passes through old landslide areas, and I have been involved with the design of slope-stabilizing measures, including the use of piles. This project has aught me much about the complex geology of the north-western part of Greece, and has allowed me to gain an appreciation of the great importance of working WITH, rather than against, the geology of an area.



i. I have a concern that many good graduates finish up outside the immediate profession, We lose a great deal of talented engineering graduates to finance and business, although it is their training in problem-solving that makes them so employable in areas outside engineering.

ii. There are increasing volumes of knowledge to impart to students, but it is still a 4-year course, as it was almost 50 years ago when I did my degree.

iii. There has been a de-emphasis of technical subjects in favor of management-oriented subjects. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, I do have some concern that the deeper understanding of the technical aspects is being lost because of the necessary watering-down of the core technical subjects.

iv. I am concerned with the “de-academization” of academic staff, who are increasingly immersed in trivial administrative tasks and in touting for business. Their pay and conditions are certainly not adequate for the responsibility they have for the future welfare of the country.

i. It is increasingly difficult to obtain funding for research in civil engineering, both here and overseas. Research funding is being poured into high-tech areas which are novel and attractive, but which may not always contribute greatly to the benefit of modern society.

ii. I believe that there is still much useful research to be done, but we must re-orient this research to focus on our future activities and needs.

iii. For example, there will be increased focus on the assessment and repair of existing facilities, rather than simply on new construction as in the past. I can quote for example the case of the Atlanta sewers, which were in the news in Atlanta every day when I was there last October, and which were in need of more than 1 billion dollars-worth of rehabilitation. Future research could well be oriented towards more effective means of investigating, and repairing in-situ, ageing infrastructure and buildings.

iv. Following on from this, because of the constraints of modern urban development, there will be an inevitable continuation of underground infrastructure development. Developing means of creating underground space more economically, and with reduced risks, appears to be a priority research area involving many sub-disciplines within civil engineering.

v. There would also appear to be an opportunity for civil engineers to become much more involved in the generation of energy from alternative sources. For example, there is already technology being developed to extract energy from pile foundations by using the thermal gradients that exist along such piles. This has been used in Austria, Germany and the UK, and has potential application here in Australia. There is already work in the structural and geotechnical design of wind farms, and this area seems to have significant potential fro improvement through research.

i. I am concerned about the inhibition of innovation because of legal liability concerns, although this is not necessarily a new thing. There appear to have been not dissimilar constraints to activities in Ancient Greece around 500BC!

ii. In particular, I am concerned that geotechnical professionals have to deal with huge uncertainties and high risks, but have to do so with severely constrained budgets. This “budget-approach” to geotechnics benefits no one in the long run, other than the legal profession, and the expert witnesses who become involved, and for whom budgets are far less constrained.

iii. Society expects us to get things right! We cannot afford to be like economists, of whom the American author Laurence Peter says:

”An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday did not happen today”.

iv. I am concerned about the general lack of visibility of the civil engineering sector of our profession. We seem to be taken very much for granted, and only become visible when something goes wrong. Then we are branded as the villains. It is perhaps time that some action was taken to redress this, and to take steps to inform the public about our role as the “quiet achievers”.


cc. Engineers should embark upon a more visible campaign to publicize our contribution to society. We need to emphasize that we influence not only society as a whole, but INDIVIDUALS. Unless we can do this, we will remain largely invisible. An example of successful profession-advertising is the CPA publicity campaign, which has been most effective and appeals to a broad cross – section of the community.

dd. I firmly believe that the development of societies in both developed and developing countries relies critically on the contributions of the civil engineer, and that this role needs to be emphasized to decision-makers.

ee. In developing countries, we can help to find more economical ways of using available resources to create infrastructure.

ff. In developed countries, we can help to find more efficient and cost-effective means of delivering (both technically and financially) the facilities required for economic growth.


In one of the classic texts by Plato, Socrates, Philebus and Protarchus discuss the nature of pleasure.

They identify at least three different types of pleasure:
The pleasure of knowledge;
The pleasure of family;
The pleasure of memory and recollection.

I have been privileged to enjoy all these three forms of pleasure.

My work has enabled me to derive a great amount of pleasure by accumulating and employing knowledge.

My family has been a source of enormous pleasure and of continuous support throughout my life. My parents George and Elene (who is now in her 100th year), did everything possible to give me opportunities that they never had.

My wife Maria and our children George, Elena, James & Peter, have been loving, patient, supportive and tolerant of my frequent absences from home.

My brother Theo and sister-in-law Annette and my nieces Elenie and Maria, have been among my greatest supporters, together with my late uncle Angelo and Aunt Stella, who made their house my home away from home, my father-in law James Langley and my mother-in-law Angela (who is here tonight), my sisters-in-law Alexandra and Theodora (who are also here tonight), and also my cousins Theo and Lillian Poulos.

In addition to my family, my professional colleagues at Sydney University, MIT, and Coffeys have all been continuous sources of encouragement and support. To all of them, and to so many more, I owe a great debt of gratitude.

Finally, in relation to the third source of pleasure that Socrates identified, the memory of this evening will afford me continuing pleasure in the future by recollecting the kindness and good wishes of all of you at this gathering.

I am extremely proud to have been born a Kytherian, and extremely grateful to be recognized so generously tonight by my fellow Kytherians.

I thank the Kytherian ladies auxiliary very much again for arranging this event, and I thank you all for coming here this evening.

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