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Photos > Working Life > Professor John Carter, on - The life and achievements of Professor Harry Poulos

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submitted by James Victor Prineas on 10.05.2004

Professor John Carter, on - The life and achievements of Professor Harry Poulos

Professor John Carter, on - The life and achievements of Professor Harry Poulos
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Challis Professor John Carter


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

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.

Challis Professor John Carter, BE PhD MASCE FIEAust CPEng, Director for the Centre for Geothechnical Research was invited to introduce Profesor Harry Poulos to the audience.

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

The two Professors have been close associates over many years.

What follows is the speech that Professor Carter gave to introduce Harry Poulos.

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 Carter very much for permission to re-print his speech.


Harry George Poulos, AM, FAA, FTSE

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great pleasure and a privilege for me to have this opportunity to say a few words about someone who was my former teacher, and I’m proud to say is now my friend, my mentor and my esteemed colleague. I am so grateful to the Kytherian Ladies’ Auxiliary for making the opportunity available to me this evening to talk to you on this happy occasion about Harry Poulos, for he is someone I regard, and I know many others in my line of work regard, as a truly great Australian. Men and women of learning, particularly in science and engineering, receive all too little recognition in this sports mad country of ours, so it is particularly gratifying that I can tell you just a little about someone from your community who really is a national and world leader in his chosen field of endeavour. I am very happy to provide some background for you about Harry’s brilliant academic career, and his many professional and other achievements.

We have just heard how Harry was born in Australia, but of course of Greek descent, and justifiably he is very proud of that. I don’t know if it was the Greek parentage and rich cultural heritage or just simply the ambience of Katoomba where he grew up, or perhaps a combination of both, but the outcome of Harry’s upbringing has been a person of great dignity, civility and calm self-assuredness. These are qualities Harry has carried with him without faltering, throughout his life. He brings a calmness to all he undertakes and in all his dealings with people. He is quite simply the quintessential gentleman.

It was interesting that Catherine Economos chose to begin her description of Harry’s family background with a Shakespearean allusion. I would like to extend that metaphor if I may and suggest that Harry is quite like Shakespeare himself. For Shakespeare not only wrote wonderful scripts, but we are told he often acted out his part in some of them. Well, so too it is with Harry Poulos. Not only has he written the technical scripts for many other engineers to use and to follow in their day-to-day practice, but he has also been an active practitioner of what he has preached. He has had a spectacular professional career as both an academic of the highest calibre by all world standards, and as a consultant, who has been much sought after in the profession for his high level of technical expertise, his integrity and always his eminent good sense.

Looking back on his stellar career we can see a long string of marvellous achievements and great career milestones, some of which I shall mention. But before I do it is also interesting to observe that the calm unruffled demeanour Harry developed early on, has probably provided the ideal basis for all the marvellous achievements of his life so far.

I shall talk about Harry’s life as both an academic and a practitioner of engineering. I can’t possibly cover all his achievements; we’d be here a long time even if I just simply tried to list them. Instead, I’ll try to give you a flavour of the man and his achievements by highlighting a few of them.

Harry has had a very close association with the University of Sydney for a period of more than 40 years. It was always important to him, and it was certainly important to the University. It was at the University he did much of his groundbreaking research in geotechnical engineering and where he forged his international reputation. He first entered the University as a student in 1957, graduating with a 1st class honours degree in Civil Engineering in 1961. He undertook Ph.D. studies, commencing in 1961, under the supervision of our late colleague Professor Ted Davis, and was awarded a Ph.D. degree in 1965 for his study of the “Settlement of Clay Soils”. He was also awarded a higher Doctorate in 1976 for his “Collected Papers” in the field of soil mechanics and foundation engineering. It is worth noting that his was only the second higher doctorate in Engineering at that time, the first having been awarded to J.J.C. Bradfield, the famous engineer and builder of the Sydney harbour bridge, Sydney’s underground rail system and other notable Australian landmarks.

In the period from April 1964 until January 1965, Harry gained his early professional experience, working as a consulting engineer with the firm MacDonald, Wagner and Priddle. He returned to join the academic staff of the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney in January 1965. He has held the full-time positions of Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor, Head of the School of Civil and Mining Engineering, Director of the Post-Graduate Civil Engineering Foundation, and founding Director of the Centre for Geotechnical Research over the 25-year period from 1965 until the late 1980s. Since July 1988, he has worked as a consultant with Coffey Partners International, which later became Coffey Geosciences. At same time he also maintained a fractional professorial appointment with the University of Sydney, an association I personally have valued very much. Many in academia and the engineering profession know Harry as a tireless worker. His efforts and his energies are legendary. As if the combined life of a consultant and teacher and researcher were not enough, in this period Harry also held the post of Director of the Civil Engineering Foundation from 1995 until the end of 2000, and he served as a member of the Board of the Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering at the University of Sydney from 1990 until the present time. If you want a job done well, give it to a busy man.

Harry has also been a Senior Fulbright Scholar and worked as an academic at MIT, the University of Western Ontario, Virginia Polytechnic and State University and the University of Rhode Island. He was appointed as an Adjunct Professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He has been in great demand as a lecturer and indeed he has received numerous invitations to deliver lectures throughout the world. He has always obliged by delivering those lectures with his characteristic enthusiasm and charm at various institutions of higher learning in the USA, England, Germany, France, Canada, Thailand, Singapore, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Greece, South Africa and Hong Kong.

His personal contributions to teaching, research and design in geotechnical engineering are simply enormous. He is the author of three books, at least ten chapters in books that I’m aware of and more than 300 technical papers on Geotechnical engineering, with a large number dealing with his favourite subject of pile foundations. Quantitatively, his output is quite remarkable, much more than most good academics achieve in a lifetime. But the quality is also there, and in abundance. Harry is acknowledged internationally as one of the leading practitioners in the design of pile foundations. His practical expertise has always been founded on solid theory. Much of that theory he invented. He is the author of the definitive textbook on pile foundations. You can be sure that anyone designing and installing piles anywhere in the world today would be singing from the Poulos songbook.

Harry’s personal contributions to teaching, research and engineering practice have greatly enhanced both his own reputation and the reputation of the University of Sydney as a centre of excellence for scholarship and research in the field of geotechnics. His many fine contributions have been recognised formally by the award of Member of the Order of Australia (1993), his election as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1988), his Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (1996), his Honorary Fellowship of the Institution of Engineers Australia (1999), the award of the Warren Prize (1972) and Warren Medal (1985) of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and the State-of-the-Art Award by the American Society of Civil Engineers (1995), to list only a few. He has also been invited to present highly prestigious lectures such as the E.H. Davis Memorial Lecture (1987) and the John Jaeger Memorial Award (1988) to the Australian Geomechanics Society. He was invited to present the Rankine Lecture to the British Geotechnical Society in 1989 and the Terzaghi Lecture to the American Society of Civil Engineers, this year, in 2004. I should point out that taken together, if not separately, these last two awards, from the British and the Americans, are effectively the Nobel Prize in our discipline of geotechnical engineering. Of course, Nobel Prizes are not awarded in Engineering, so these are the highest, most prestigious awards that anyone can achieve in our field.

Harry has also been recogised by receiving invitations to deliver the Schiffman Lecture at Cornell University in 1996, the Ardaman Lecture at the University of Florida in 1997, the inaugural Athenian Geotechnical Lecture in Greece in 2000, the 8th Spencer Buchanan Lecture at Texas A&M University in 2000, the Chin Fung Kee Memorial Lecture to the South East Asian Geotechnical Society in 2001, as well the 5th Sowers Lecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2002.

I think from that incomplete list of the awards and prizes he has received you should get the idea that Harry really is regarded as a world leader in his chosen field of Engineering. As I said, he built his reputation as an academic and then thoroughly cemented it later as a practitioner.

Harry’s service to the engineering profession has also reflected most favourably upon himself and the University of Sydney. He has long been a contributor to the activities of the Australian Geomechanics Society (AGS). He was a long-term member of the National Committee of AGS and its Chairman from 1982 to 1985. From 1989-1994, he was Australasian Vice-President of the International Society of Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering. He is currently a specially appointed member of the Board of this International Society. He has also been a member of the editorial boards of at least 6 leading learned engineering journals.

During the period of his full-time employment with the University, Harry was heavily involved in the consulting activities of the Department, with major projects including investigations for foundations for offshore oil and gas platforms in Bass Strait and on the North-West Shelf. He has advised many other organizations involved in piling projects and problems throughout the world, particularly since his time with Coffeys. The list of his projects and achievements is large and impressive. Suffice to say that it is well known in the profession that if an Australian structure is founded on piles, it is likely that Professor Harry Poulos has had some involvement, if not directly, then probably indirectly through the large number of engineers he has taught and influenced.

Since the late 80s, when he started to devote the greater share of his professional efforts to consulting he has been asked to work on some really wonderful projects, some of them landmarks in their own right. Again, I don’t have time or space to list them all, but I shall mention just a few. Perhaps Harry will tell us more about some of them when he speaks.

His projects span the globe. From Australia to Indonesia, to Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Middle East, Greece and even in the North Sea. They include the design of foundations for tall buildings, offshore oil platforms, major bridges and power stations. If you travel down the Hume highway over the bridge on the Mittagong by-pass, think of Harry, for he designed the piles that support that bridge. As you park your car in the Sydney Opera House Car Park, think of Harry. He worked together with a team from his firm Coffey Partners to devise a very clever way of ensuring that the thin sandstone roof of that car park would stay in place safely for the life of that structure. His team came up with a really innovative solution to that particular problem. If you are ever in Dubai, and you visit the Emirate Towers, a major and impressive man-made landmark in that part of the world, you might think of Harry also. He devised the foundation system that supports those structures in some quite problematic ground conditions. And if you are ever in that part of the world staying in the Chicago Beach Tower Hotel in Dubai, think of Harry for similar reasons.

One project of his that I should single out for special mention is one that he is currently engaged on with other professional colleagues. The project involves the construction of a major highway, in northern Greece. What is most interesting about the project is that the highway has to cross a major landslide. Harry is providing advice on how to stabilise the hillside so that the highway remains safe. I think there is a lovely symmetry here. The Greeks, first “exported” Harry to us, as it were, here in Australia, and now he repays the favour by exporting his Australian technology and expertise back to Greece. There is much that is satisfying in such arrangements between the old and the new worlds.

Just last year, the body that represents all professional engineers in Australia, Engineers Australia, chose Harry to be its Civil Engineer of the Year for 2003. This award was fitting recognition of a lifetime devoted to his chosen profession, to improving it through teaching, research and innovation in engineering design. Harry has always led by example, and the profession is very proud of what he has managed to do to improve the level of geotechnical engineering both in Australia and elsewhere in the world.

I hope I have managed to give you some idea of the measure of the man, at least as an engineer. I must say I also hold him the highest regard as a person. As we have heard, he is a very modest man, somewhat self-effacing, but he has always been willing to lend advice and a helping hand to friends and colleagues, both young and old. There are many that have benefited from his wisdom over the years, myself included.

I have emphasised Harry’s many contributions to our society. I did try hard to think of his foibles, but really there none that are obvious and few that come readily to mind. He exercises such great self-control. I suppose one of his passions, perhaps a weakness, is for collecting books and recorded music. We have heard about his collection already. If you have the privilege of browsing through Harry’s personal library, you will find some rather obscure titles. For example, he is the only person I know with his own copy of a book entitled “The Grasses of Wyoming”. Perhaps he might like to tell us why?

Harry Poulos is one of the greatest civil engineers this country has produced, and I am confident that history will accord him that honour. He has simply been an inspiration to many, and has taught us as much by example as by formal instruction.

I want to finish now by thanking two people. The first is Harry’s wife Maria, for her love and support of him. I don’t have to tell you Maria that you are married to a remarkable person, but the whole engineering community values what you have done to support Harry while he produced so much that has been of lasting benefit to the engineering profession.

And finally, I would like to thank Catherine Economos for inviting me to this marvellous occasion and for allowing me to speak about someone I so admire. It has been an enormous pleasure for me. Thank you all for your attention.

John Carter
Saturday, 8 May 2004

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