Norbert Rubin Morgenstern Civil Engineering

Internationally recognized authority in the field of Civil/Geotechnical Engineering

The Story

He is known as “Mr. Earthquake” in Japan for helping to make buildings stable during earthquakes; he is known as “Mr. Landslide” in Hong Kong for offering his engineering creativity for stabilizing steep slopes; and above all he is known as a much-admired teacher.

At first glance Norbert Morgenstern’s career choice looks like he made the best of a bad situation. He could not study medicine because he could not stand the sight of blood. He did not want to study law because his parents wanted him to study it. So he settled on Civil Engineering.

At university he discovered the relatively new discipline of soil mechanics that deals with the properties and behavior of soils. It piqued his interest. Upon graduation, Morgenstern received the prestigious Athlone Fellowship to pursue graduate studies at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in England. There, his keen intellect and exceptional analytical skills set him apart so much that he shortly became a faculty member, first as a Research Assistant in 1958 and a Lecturer in 1960. Morgenstern stayed at the Imperial College for another eight years, teaching, researching, and establishing himself as a consultant in applied earth sciences.

His reputation as an international expert grew and Morgenstern returned to Canada in 1968. Surprising his colleagues and friends, he joined the University of Alberta as a Professor of Civil Engineering. He obviously saw great potential in Western Canada and helped the University of Alberta to establish one of the leading geotechnical schools in North America, attracting top specialists and talented graduate students from Canada and abroad. He was named University Professor in 1985.

Morgenstern always refused to conduct “safe" academic research; he put himself, his colleagues, and students right amid major geotechnical challenges that Canada faced at that time –- the Artic, the Beaufort Sea, the Alberta Tar Sands and mines. During his 31-year teaching career, he mentored and supervised 23 master and 45 PhD students. Morgenstern retired from active teaching in 1999 but continued lecturing at the undergraduate level. His former colleagues and students warmly remember him, a great teacher, always accessible, always ready to listen and to help.

The Science

Geotechnical Engineering (also known as Soils Engineering) is a branch of Civil Engineering that deals with soil, rock and underground water, and their relation to design, construction and operation of engineering projects, such as foundations for bridges, roads, buildings, solid waste disposal systems (landfills), dams, embankments, tunnels, canals, and waterways. Soil Mechanics is a narrower term for Geotechnical Engineering.

"Soils" has different meaning depending on whom you talk to. To a farmer, it is a thin layer on the earth surface where they can grow crops; to a geologist it is the top layer of loose material that covers solid rock and includes organic matter derived from plants, and to an engineer, soil is the primary construction material.

Soil is the oldest but the most complex construction material. People from time immemorial used soils for building homes and graves, for protection from enemies and natural disasters. But most importantly, soil forms the foundation of every structure on earth.

The life of any structure depends on the stability and strength of the foundation soil. If the soil fails to support the structure, it will fall or be damaged no matter how well it has been designed and used. So, the understanding of why and how soil performs and particularly predicting the behavior of soil in different situations is essential to construction.

Dr. Morgenstern's research interests include the strength and deformation of soils, rocks, dam design, permafrost engineering, oil-sands and offshore engineering, mine waste management, progressive ground failure, numerical modeling of geotechnical structures, landslides and risk analysis.

He has contributed to Geotechnical Engineering both as a researcher and practitioner for governments and industries worldwide. He is particularly known for his work on dams and slope stability. He is also known for a commitment to safety and protection of the environment. He assisted in technology transfer to developing countries through the United Nations. Overall, he worked in twenty countries on six continents. He has published more than 300 research papers about Geotechnical and Geo-environmental engineering.


Alberta Order of Excellence

Engineering Institute of Canada

Morgenstern earns big cash reward for career Express News, University of Alberta

Research Excellence Celebrated Alumni Association, University of Alberta

Image: University of Alberta

The Person

May 25, 1935
Toronto, Ontario
Edmonton, Alberta
University Professor (Emeritus) of Civil and Environmental Engineering, President
University of Alberta, Norbert R. Morgenstern Consultants Ltd.
  • B.Sc. (Civil Engineering) University of Toronto, 1956
  • D.I.C. (Diploma of Imperial College), Ph.D. (Soils Mechanics) University of London, 1964
  • The Sir John Kennedy Medal, 2003
  • Killam Prize, 2001
  • Member of the Order of Canada, 2000
  • Terzaghi Lecture to the American Society of Civil Engineering, 1992
  • Member of the Alberta Order of Excellence, 1991
  • Rankine Lecture, the British Geotechnical Society, 1981
  • Walter Huber Engineering Research Prize from the American Society of Civil Engineers, 1971
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, 1975
  • Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering,
  • Legget Award, the Canadian Geotechnical Society, 1979
  • Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering
  • Foreign Member of the U.K. Royal Academy of Engineering
  • Foreign Fellow of the Indian Academy of Engineering
Last Updated
December 5, 2011

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