Water Resource Collections and Archives


Morrough Parker O'Brien, 1902-1988

Morrough Parker O'Brien, 1902-1988

Morrough Parker O'Brien was born in Hammond, Indiana, on September 21, 1902. He completed high school in Toledo, Ohio, and received a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1925. He did graduate work at Purdue University, 1925-1927, and in 1927-1928, as the John R. Freeman Scholar of the American Society of Civil Engineers for study of fluid mechanics at the Technische Hochschule in Danzig and The Royal College of Engineering in Stockholm. He received three honorary degrees: the D.Sc. from Northwestern University; the D.Eng. from Purdue University; and the LL.D. from the University of California.

O'Brien engaged in three fundamentally different careers. His academic career as Professor, Chairman, and Dean of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, spanned the years 1928-1959. A second career was his pioneering work in the development of coastal engineering. His third career was his service form 1949 until his death to General Electric Company, to the University of Florida and other universities, and to government agencies.

Ernest O. Lawrence and Robert J. Oppenheimer were appointed assistant professors in the same year as O'Brien, and the three became good friends. These associations greatly influenced his views regarding the importance of research in a modern engineering school. During his tenure as Dean of the College of Engineering at Berkeley he led the development of the College to its top-ranked status in many engineering disciplines. He was widely regarded as a powerful and perceptive leader in engineering education. Under his leadership, the University established the external Engineering Advisory Council, the Engineering Alumni Society, and such research units as the Institute of Traffic and Transportation Engineering, the Sanitary Engineering Research Laboratory, the University-wide Water Resources Center, and the Biomechanics Laboratory (in cooperation with the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the UC Medical School in San Francisco). UC President Emeritus Clark Kerr, who had served as Chancellor during the later years of O'Brien's tenure as Dean, remembered him as "the mighty Mike" and the "builder of the College of Engineering and a builder of Berkeley" during a symposium held in O'Brien's honor in March 1987. (A record of that symposium is in Shore and Beach, July/Oct. 1987).

O'Brien received a number of honors from the University. O'Brien Hall, which houses the Hydraulics Laboratory and the Water Resources Center Archives (since moved to UC Riverside and re-named the Water Resources Collections and Archives), was named for him, and a portrait of O'Brien hangs in the entry hall of this building. He was awarded a Doctor of Laws degree in 1968. In April 1988 he was awarded the Clark Kerr Award, given by the Academic Senate. Dean O'Brien was also awarded the Lamme Award for excellence in teaching by the American Society for Engineering Education.

O'Brien was the founder of modern coastal engineering. He wrote a number of papers on the subject which have had a lasting influence. He was appointed Civil Engineer for the U.S. Army Board on Sand Movement and Beach Erosion in 1929, and initiated research by this board on coastal engineering. In 1930 he made field studies along the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California, and wrote a detailed seven-volume report on the results of his observations. A landmark paper on the relationship between tidal prism and entrance area was one of the results of these studies. He summarized many of his observations and thoughts on beach processes and the effects of structures on beaches in his paper "The Coast of California as a Beach Erosion Laboratory" (Shore and Beach, July 1936). In 1938 he was appointed a member of the Beach Erosion Board, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and served on it until it was abolished in 1963. He was then appointed to its successor, the Coastal Engineering Research Board, serving there from 1963 until 1978, a total of 40 years on the two boards.

The years of World War II were extremely busy for O'Brien, serving as Chairman of the Mechanical Engineering Department until 1943 when he was appointed both Dean of the College of Engineering and also Chairman of the Department of Engineering. He was Executive Engineer of the Radiation Laboratory under Professor E.O. Lawrence in 1942-1943. O'Brien was asked by Lawrence and General Groves, the Director of the Manhattan Project, to recruit an engineering team to design the engineering facilities at Oak Ridge for the electromagnetic system. O'Brien said that probably the most important thing he did in his life was to convince them that there was not time to build a competent staff, that they should hire companies with an established engineering staff to do the job. He was in charge of the Statewide University of California Engineering Science and Management War Training Program, 1940-1944, when the program registered 46,000 students who worked under 1,800 instructors. He worked for the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships on underwater sound, on cavitation generated by submarine propellers (the results of his research were immediately implemented by submariners), and on the design and operation of amphibious craft. He also worked with Professor H.U. Sverdrup of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography on the forecasting of waves, and he directed a program of field and laboratory studies of landing craft for the bureau. In 1950 he and Professor Joe W. Johnson started what are now known as the International Conferences on Coastal Engineering.

O'Brien was a member of the Army Scientific Advisory Panel, 1954-1965, serving as its chairman, 1961-1965; a member of the Defense Science Board, 1961-1965; member of the Board of the National Science Foundation (a Presidential appointment), 1958- 1960; and he served on numerous committees of the National Research Council. He was twice awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal.

He was a leader in several fields of engineering, including pumps and air compressors. The compressor design for the first American axial flow jet engine was laid out exactly in accordance with the method presented in the paper by O'Brien and Folsom entitled "The Design of Propeller Pumps and Fans." It was incorporated in what became the J47 engine with a production run of thousands. He was elected to the General Electric Company Propulsion Hall of Fame in 1984.

In 1988, his oral history, Morrough P. O'Brien: Dean of the College of Engineering, Pioneer in Coastal Engineering, and Consultant to General Electric, was published by the Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library.

Professor O'Brien died on July 28, 1988, at his home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, at the age of 85.

Excerpted from: In Memoriam, by R. E. Connick, H. D. Eberhart, J. W. Johnson, J. R. Whinnery, and R. L. Wiegel, 1988.

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Morrough P. O'Brien Papers, 1918-1981 ca. 12 linear ft. (26 boxes)

Correspondence, reports, and documents, concerning sedimentation, flow of water in channels, rivers, flood control, waves and surge, beach erosion, dams and related projects, pipes, hydraulic models, and pumps.

Online collection guide available via the Online Archive of California.

Call number: O'BRIEN

Last modified: 5/4/2011 12:01 PM by S. Haren

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