Engineers Australia

Vale John Neilson

John L Neilson passed away on 17th October 2020 at the age of 90, following a 5-year battle with illness.

John’s funeral service will be live-streamed on Monday 02 November at 2pm. John’s family has provided the following link https://bit.ly/2TdzMfG for his friends and colleagues to join this celebration his life.

Many of us worked with John over the years, and many more will know John as contributor and co-editor of the “Engineering Geology of the Melbourne Region” published by the Australian Geomechanics Society in 1992.

John graduated in Geology from the University of Melbourne in the 1950’s, and spent 35 years at the Geological Survey of Victoria (GSV). As Head of the Engineering Geology Section, John was involved in mapping the subsurface geology for iconic Melbourne projects, such as the Underground Rail Loop, Hobsons Bay Main Sewer Tunnel, South East Sewer Tunnel, West Gate Bridge foundations, Melbourne City Link and the Victoria Dock redevelopment.

After retiring from the GSV, John was engaged by many consulting engineers to provide his extensive geological knowledge on their projects, including dam sites, quarry resources, coastal stability assessments, highway alignments and landslides.  John had a deep understanding of the Yarra Delta sediments, and was generous with sharing his knowledge with the local geotechnical community. He contributed to the education of many engineers and geologists through his guest lectures at universities, and was actively involved with the GSV and AGS where he was highly regarded for his friendship and technical contributions.

He was supported by his wife Karin, his daughters, and their families  – and was fortunate to be able to have a wonderful 90th birthday party, with family and friends, just one week before the recent Melbourne lockdown.

John was a true gentleman and friend to those fortunate enough to have known him.

The AGS Victoria Chapter has created this page to allow friends and colleagues of John to pay their respects, and leave messages of condolence and support for his family. We will compile these messages and present them to John’s family, as a record of the legacy John has left with the geomechanics community, and as a celebration of his professional life.

4 replies on “Vale John Neilson”

I am saddened to here of John’s passing.

John’s relationship with the Geomechanics Community extends back to the 1950’s, when he applied his geological knowledge to the construction of the King Street Bridge. The success of his secondment on this project, which highlighted the gap between geology and engineering in the construction industry, led to John taking leadership of the Engineering Geology Section of the Geological Survey in 1963.

During his time with the Geological Survey, John was directly involved on some of the most iconic engineering projects around Melbourne. These include the Kings and West Gate Bridges, the Commonwealth Centre; the St Kilda Junction Grade-separated Interchange, the Melbourne Underground Rail Loop and a number of major sewer tunnels.

About the time he finished his career with the Geological Survey, John compiled a career’s worth of investigation and interpretation of subsurface conditions in and around Melbourne’s Yarra Delta area. The result of this work was published in the ‘Engineering Geology of Melbourne’ proceedings, as the authoritative guide to engineering geology near the mouth of the Yarra River. This dissertation, containing detailed stratigraphic descriptions and geological cross sections, remains one John’s most significant legacies amongst the geotechnical community. It is still referred to by local practitioners for projects large and small. John, of course, was one of the co-editors of these proceedings, and the publication greatly benefited from his experience interpreting Melbourne geology for engineering projects.

After his time with the Geological Survey, he continued to provide his extensive geological knowledge on projects for the consulting industry, including dam sites, quarry resources, coastal stability assessments, highway alignments and landslides. It was during this period of his professional life that I knew John.

In 2000 the Victorian Division of the Geological Society of Australia recognised John’s contribution to engineering geology, awarding him The Selwyn Medal. This award recognises significant contributions of high calibre to Victorian geology. In awarding the medal, particular attention was drawn to John’s ability to unravel complex geology and present it in a way the engineering community could understand and apply.

Other areas where John significantly influenced the field of geomechanics includes his work with the Victorian Geomorphology Reference Group, and as an editor and contributor to the 2003 revision of the Geology of Victoria. He was generous with sharing his knowledge, contributing to the education of many engineers and geologists through his guest lectures at universities. He was actively involved with the Australian Geomechanics Society, where he was highly regarded for his friendship and technical contributions.

Please accept my condolences in this time of grieving. I hope my recollections go some way to celebrating John’s life, and the legacy he has left on the Geomechanics community in Victoria.

Yours faithfully,
Chris Coulson
2020 Chair, Australian Geomechanics Society – Victoria Chapter

Christopher Coulson,

John Leslie Neilson
1930 -2020

John Neilson died on the 18th October after a 5year fight with leukemia. He was supported by his wife Karin, his daughters, Kirsten and Andrea and their families. Fortuitously, John was able to have a wonderful 90th birthday party with family and friends, just one week before the recent Melbourne Covid-19 lockdown.

John was educated at Wesley College, although for 2 years during WW2 Wesley shared the Scotch College campus where he met his lifelong friend, Trevor Faragher. John graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1954, the same year as Ian Donald, with a major in Geology and post-graduate work in Geomorphology. He joined the Geological Survey of Victoria (GSV) and up until 1958 was involved in regional geological mapping, including the Moroka and Wonnangatta geological sheets. In 1958 he was asked to provide geological assistance during the design and construction of the King St Bridge foundations. Additional requests for engineering geological advice meant that the GSV established the Engineering Geological Section in 1963 with John in charge through to 1990 when it closed.

During this period John was involved in mapping the sub-surface geology of many iconic Melbourne projects, including the Underground Rail Loop, Hobson’s Bay Sewer Tunnel, West Gate Bridge foundations, Melbourne City Link and Victoria Dock redevelopment. He was often called to provide advice on local government and private bodies to comment on regional planning, cemetery site selection, coastal cliff stability, beach erosion, mine subsidence, landslide studies and mapping of the sub-surface geology of the Melbourne CBD. John was a strong advocate for the engineering geological mapping of the CBD and regional development areas, such as Berwick. He travelled widely in Europe to study engineering geological mapping at Hamburg, Kiel and Stockholm Universities. He arranged for Professor Hermann Jaeger, a well-known palaeontologist from Humbolt University, to visit Victoria and the ANU and other states. John was a classical music enthusiast and in 1963, on one of these trips, he also visited Bayreuth in Germany to take in the annual Wagner Festival. Upon arrival he found all the hotels full, so was billeted with a family who had an 18yo daughter, Karin. The rest is history; John and Karin were married in Bayreuth three years later, in 1966.

There were many aspects of John’s insightful professional work. He closely followed new developments in mapping of geological hazards and the related risk assessments. He visited the Geologic Survey in Copenhagen, Hamburg and Stuttgart and the US Geological Survey in Denver. Contacts he made with colleagues overseas enriched his work in regional studies such as the impact of landslides on land use in the Strzelecki and Dandenong Ranges. Overall, John loved the Victorian High Country and all the geological processes that informed the landscape. John authored approximately 40 reports for the GSV on investigations across Victoria.

After retiring from 35 years with the GSV John became a consultant in 1992 to many professional organisations to share his extensive knowledge on their projects. These included dam sites, quarry resources, highway alignments and landslides. He was involved as an Expert Witness on several Environment Effects Studies and court cases. John was actively involved with the GSA, AGS and the IEAG where he was highly regarded for his friendship and technical insights. He contributed to many engineers and geologists through his presentations at the GSA, the AGS and as a guest lecturer at universities and conferences. He was a contributing Editor for the publications “Engineering Geology of the Melbourne Region” and “Geology of Victoria”. In 2003 he received the GSA Victoria Division Selwyn Medal for his long service to the profession with the particularly important contributions to the establishment of the early classification of weathering zones for the Silurian Sedimentary bedrock beneath Melbourne and his deep understanding of the Yarra Delta sedimentary profile.

John will be remembered by his friends, colleagues, students and his family as a gentleman and we will think of him often.

— Don Raisbeck

The tributes above detail how deeply John was involved in the understanding of the geology of Victoria and especially Melbourne. My enduring memory of him is that he was someone who really cared about what he was doing and how his work could help others. In my time at VicRoads, if I ran into him at a AGS meeting, he would sometimes take me aside and quietly hint that he heard we were working in such a such area of the state and there might be something he had which would be of use . It always was. In his gentle but quietly insistent way, he would never force any opinion on you, but after a while you just asked him for it anyway, and valued it . He will be remembered by many for making this effective bridge between geology and engineering for the betterment of many projects and people’s understanding of the importance of this. Amongst many of his contributions, a really lasting legacy to the profession is the fervour with which he pursued the idea of the publication “The Engineering Geology of the Melbourne Region ” and coralled people to contribute, especially at the time that many government organisations were reducing their involvement in such things. With gratitude and best wishes to his family.
Tom Flintoff . November 1, 2020.

William Flintoff,

As a relatively young geotechnical engineer in 1990 I was privileged to be asked to join the editorial committee of a proposed publication to detail the Engineering Geology of Melbourne. This is how I met John Neilson and what a wonderful person he was. So generous with his time and knowledge; so passionate about the topic. I think it is fair to say the ‘blue book’ would not be what it is without John’s drive and commitment. He managed to enroll the various authors who all gave significant time to craft a document which is still widely valued nearly 30 years later.
John became a valued friend during those many meetings we held to plan and deliver that book.
Although it was well before my time I was well aware of the contribution John had made to ground engineering in Melbourne working with Ian Donald on Kings Bridge and other iconic projects. I referred back to that information on other bridges that crossed the Yarra in that area.
Best wishes to all his family. John’s life can be celebrated with the joy he brought to all those who worked with him.
Roger Olds

Roger Olds,

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