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Ted Belytschko, Renowned Researcher, Scholar, and Mentor, Passes Away

Mechanical engineering professor revolutionized virtual prototyping

Ted Belytschko, Robert R. McCormick Institute Professor and Walter P. Murphy Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering, passed away Sept. 15. A member of Northwestern’s faculty since 1977, Belytschko was a central figure in the McCormick community and an internationally renowned researcher who made major contributions to the field of computational structural mechanics.

One of the most cited researchers in engineering science, Belytschko developed explicit finite element methods that are widely used in crashworthiness analysis and virtual prototyping in the auto industry. He received numerous honors, including membership in the US National Academy of Engineering, US National Academy of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Ted Belytschko“Ted exuded technical excellence,” said McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino. “His work shaped an entire industry and legions of students.”

After receiving his PhD in mechanics from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1968, Belytschko joined the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was a favorite among students. Wing Kam Liu, who is now a Walter P. Murphy Professor of Mechanical Engineering at McCormick, was one of his undergraduates. The two met in 1973 and became lifelong friends and collaborators.

“Ted and I had a great time during many summers while testing the theories of the computational mechanics of wind surfing on Lake Michigan,” Liu said. “His research and teaching greatly influenced the modeling and simulation world in such a way that we call him the ‘father of simulation-driven engineering.’”

At Northwestern, Belytschko was named a McCormick Distinguished Professor in 2003 and served as chair of the mechanical engineering department from 1997 to 2002. Students and colleagues enjoyed his sense of humor and admired his ability to explain complex problems in an easy-to-understand manner. He served as a role model for the Northwestern community.

“Ted was my department chair when I arrived at Northwestern, and he was my model for a successful academic,” said Kevin Lynch, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “He was a great mentor, colleague, and friend. His passing is a deep loss for our department.”

Many techniques that Belytschko developed throughout his career changed the way engineers design structures. Some of his greatest contributions to the field of mechanical engineering were the explicit finite element methods that have been widely used in large deformation analysis and virtual prototyping. An early application for these methods was in car crash analysis. Instead of completing physical crash tests on cars, many designers now use Belytschko’s simulations for virtually examining crashes.

“Ted was a titan in the field of mechanics,” Lynch said. “His life’s work produced ideas, technology, and people that have defined the practice of computational mechanics.”

Beyond his contributions to computer simulations of mechanical events, Belytschko took the most pride in his students. He delighted in watching his students learn and grow. In a 2013 video produced by ASME, Belytschko said, “The most important thing is to give a lot of freedom because it’s remarkable what these young people can do on their own. And if I hadn’t let them develop on their own, I don’t think I would have the reputation I have. So much of my reputation rests on the contributions of my students.”

He was a founding director of the US Association for Computational Mechanics, and in 2012, the association named a medal in his honor. The ASME Applied Mathematics Award also was renamed the ASME Ted Belytschko Applied Mechanics Division Award in November 2007. Belytschko also served as editor-in-chief of the International Journal for Numerical Methods in Engineering and coauthor of the books Nonlinear Finite Elements for Continua and Structures and A First Course in Finite Elements.

In 2013 the McCormick School of Engineering created a lecture series in honor of Belytschko. The Ted Belytschko Lecture recognizes the longtime faculty member for his impact on the mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering departments. The series brings a prominent speaker to the University each year and on Oct. 14 will host John Tinsley Oden from the University of Texas at Austin.

Visitation for Ted Belytschko will be held Friday, Sept. 19 from 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at the Donnellan Funeral Home located at 10045 Skokie Blvd in Skokie, IL.  The funeral service will also take place at the Donnellan Funeral Home on Saturday, Sept. 20 at 10:00 a.m.