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Hitch-hiking up Africa


Becoming a soil mechanic
Lewis Wolpert Scientist
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And so I was a qualified civil engineer. I wasn’t mad about the subject, I was envious of my arts friends, who could read all sorts of lovely books and didn’t have to work nearly as hard as we did and so I didn’t... know what I was going to do. But then — via a relative — I was offered a job to be the personal assistant of the Director of the Building Research Institute in Pretoria and that sounded quite nice. So I went to Pretoria and became his assistant  — Jerry Jennings  — and he was a very nice man and what... the research there was on African housing, but the real research was on unsaturated soils. It was a big problem in South Africa at... at that time with certain housing... is that you’d build something and then the soil would rise up and the whole building would crack badly and they were trying to understand what was going on in the soils, so I became a soil mechanic. And I even was the author of — or part author — of two papers on the behaviour of unsaturated soils, and that was in 1952 and I quite enjoyed soil mechanics. I can’t say I was mad about it, it’s not the most exciting thing in the world and I wasn’t mad about Pretoria, which a friend of mine called: ‘The largest cemetery he knew, with lights’.

Lewis Wolpert (1929-2021) CBE FRS FRSL was a developmental biologist, author, and broadcaster. He was educated at the University of Witwatersrand (BSc), Imperial College London, and at King's College London (PhD). He was Emeritus Professor of Biology as applied to medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology at University College London. In addition to his scientific and research publications, he wrote about his own experience of clinical depression in Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression (1999).

Listeners: Eleanor Lawrence

Eleanor Lawrence is a freelance science writer and editor, and co-author of Longman Dictionary of Environmental Science.

Tags: Building Research Institute, Pretoria, South Africa, Jerry Jennings

Duration: 1 minute, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2010

Date story went live: 14 June 2010