Engineering News

Professor Emeritus Jan D. Achenbach Passes Away

Expert in applied mechanics and quantitative nondestructive evaluation received the National Medal of Technology and the National Medal of Science

Jan D. AchenbachJan D. Achenbach
Jan D. Achenbach with President George W. Bush.Jan D. Achenbach with President George W. Bush.
Jan D. Achenbach with a student.Jan D. Achenbach with a student.

Jan D. Achenbach, Walter P. Murphy and Distinguished McCormick School Professor Emeritus of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics, and Mechanical Engineering, passed away at age 85 on August 22. He is remembered for his extraordinary contributions to the field of applied mechanics, and the enduring relationships he built with students and colleagues at Northwestern Engineering.

During his five decades at the McCormick School of Engineering, Achenbach was renowned for his pioneering work on quantitative nondestructive evaluation. Achenbach developed methods for flaw detection and characterization by using contact transducers, imaging techniques, and laser-based ultrasonics. He had also developed methods for thin-layer characterization by acoustic microscopy.

“Jan raised the stakes for what is possible for faculty members at Northwestern Engineering,” said Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School of Engineering. “His outside influence stretched far beyond the halls of the Technological Institute and McCormick and broadly into the field of applied mechanics. The number of people influenced by him is remarkable.”

His career was marked by many honors. Achenbach received a 2003 US National Medal of Technology for his seminal contributions to engineering research and education and for pioneering methods for detecting dangerous cracks and corrosion in aircraft, leading to improved safety for aircraft structure. He was awarded a 2005 US National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for innovation in technology and science honoring a lifetime of work. Additionally, Achenbach was a member of both the National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences, and an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“He was a pioneer in his field,” said Kevin Lynch, chair and professor of mechanical engineering. “His leadership, particularly in terms of his seminal contributions and his mentorship of his students, has been a model for faculty in our department for more than 50 years.”

“Jan was not only a great scientist and engineer, as evidenced by his National Medal of Science and National Medal of Technology, but also was the best colleague who was extremely supportive of others,” said Yonggang Huang, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. “We will miss him.”

Achenbach earned numerous other accolades, including the 2012 ASME Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the 2010 Theodore von Karman Medal from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the 2001 William Prager Medal from the Society of Engineering Science. In 2011, he was awarded a rare honorary doctorate degree from China’s Zhejiang University. The founding editor of Wave Motion, a scientific journal on the physics of waves, Achenbach served as the publication’s editor-in-chief from 1979 to 2012.

Born in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Achenbach earned his PhD in 1962 from Stanford University. He then served as a preceptor at Columbia University. A year later, Achenbach joined the Northwestern Engineering faculty as an assistant professor of civil engineering, becoming associate professor in 1966 and professor in 1969. He was named Walter P. Murphy Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Engineering Science and Applied Mathematics in 1981, and then distinguished McCormick School Professor in 1992.

Achenbach’s work was both analytical and experimental in nature, with extensive cooperation with investigators from other universities and from industrial organizations on theoretical experimental projects. His work in fracture mechanics was primarily on dynamic fracture, and he also carried out research on structural acoustics and the mechanical behavior of composite materials.

Achenbach founded Northwestern’s Center for Quality Engineering and Failure Prevention, a laboratory for quality control in structural mechanics, later renamed the Center for Smart Structures & Materials.

Achenbach was preceded in death by his wife Marcia, who passed away in 2019 after 58 years of marriage.

“We have lost a giant of mechanics, a leader and wise member of our academic community, and a great friend,” said Zdeněk P. Bažant, McCormick Institute Professor, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering. “My wife Iva and I are nostalgic for the 20 years during which Jan and Marcia were our neighbors. We cannot imagine anyone more friendly and accommodating.”

Inspired by their lifetime of experiences at Northwestern, the Achenbachs made a number of commitments to support the future of Northwestern Engineering, including funding the Jan and Marcia Achenbach Professor of Mechanical Engineering chairs, and the Jan D. Achenbach Lecture Fund, in addition to other areas.

Jan and Marcia mentored students, building lifelong bonds. One was Jianmin Qu, now the dean of engineering at Tufts University, who earned his master’s and PhD from Northwestern Engineering and served as chair of the McCormick School of Engineering’s civil and environmental engineering department from 2009 to 2015.

“Jan was the one who convinced me to come to Northwestern for my PhD with him. Twenty years after my PhD, he again was the one who convinced me to return to Northwestern Engineering as a faculty member. Both have proven to be pivotal to my career,” said Qu. “His mentorship and friendship helped me forge my career path, and I am forever grateful for his support and guidance.”

No public services are scheduled at this time.