Professor Emeritus Jerome Connor, pioneer in structural mechanics, dies at 91

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Jerome J. Connor ’53, SM ’54, ScD ’59, professor emeritus in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a member of the MIT faculty since 1959, died on March 31. He was 91 years old.

Over a remarkable career spanning nearly six decades at the Institute, Connor was a prolific scholar and highly respected mentor to several generations of students, many of whom now hold notable positions in academia and industry around the world. His earliest research contributed to the pioneering numerical methods widely used today in structural engineering, such as the finite element method, and was also an early pioneer of the boundary element method. In addition, Connor was the lead proponent of the technical discipline referred to as motion-based design, which is based on limiting displacements against earthquake effects by means of structural control. His leadership role in the application of numerical methods to structural engineering led to significant advances in the numerical simulation of structural and material behavior.

“He was well-known for his intellectual leadership, exceptional dedication to the department, and extraordinary mentoring of students, faculty, and staff,” says Oral Buyukozturk, the George Macomber Professor in Construction Management, who first met Connor when he was an adjunct associate professor at Brown University and was invited to lecture at MIT.

Connor led the department in new teaching and research directions, advocating the importance of materials research and of design education in the civil engineering curriculum. For over 20 years, Connor led the high-performance structures track in the Master of Engineering (MEng) program as faculty advisor. In addition to classroom teaching, he helped MEng students think outside of the box in their design of skyscrapers and bridges. He often accompanied students on weeklong national and international visits to prominent construction sites during MIT’s Independent Activities Period. With his wife Barbara and their family, he regularly entertained students at their summer home on Cape Cod. His dedication and development of the program contributed to its success and recognition at peer institutions as one of the best professional MEng programs in the nation — eagerly sought out by students in structural engineering.

“Connor was truly devoted to our students and he was passionate about the field of structural design. He introduced a number of pedagogical innovations that we still use today, such as semester-long design projects as well as on-site visits to innovative, signature projects together with their design engineers,” says John Ochsendorf, professor of architecture and civil and environmental engineering, who taught with Connor for 10 years and currently leads the structural mechanics and design track of the MEng program.

Adoring mentor and visionary

Connor was a beloved mentor, and from 2007 to 2014 organized and managed MIT undergraduates’ participation in the National Steel Bridge competition. Buyukozturk recalls how “he was always coming up with new and innovative concepts for the competition; several times his team was selected as top in the nation and year after year his students were placed in the top three.”

MIT professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering Eduardo Kausel, who was a graduate student of Connor’s and then later a colleague, remembers him fondly as an incredible teacher and colleague.

"Jerry was an excellent teacher and I enjoyed taking his advanced computational mechanics class. He was brilliant in computational mechanics and excelled in everything he did,” says Kausel. “As a colleague, he was always kind and had a gentle demeanor; I never saw him getting angry or voicing harsh words. He also had this fantastic ability to mentor students who would go on not only to become very successful as outstanding professionals, but also very wealthy,” Kausel says.

Kausel also remembers Connor’s uncanny ability to look into the future and know where the next big trend occurred in the field. Connor was one of the first researchers to work on the boundary element method in structural engineering. The method is effective in understanding how fluid interacts with structures to ensure its stability, safety, and efficiency. Connor also experimented with artificial intelligence well before it became popular and played a significant role in leading a team of MIT researchers in the development of the STRUDL computer code, which became a highly influential software package for structural analysis and design.

In addition to structural mechanics, he pursued computational fluid mechanics, helping develop early finite element analysis in both the time and frequency domains. His models had applications to offshore engineering, including tidal circulation, and the behavior and design of marine structures for resiliency in withstanding extreme events, including those related to climate change.

Buyukozturk credits the way the department has evolved into what it is today because of Connor’s direction and vision. “Priorities for research change over time, but Jerry set forth a basic roadmap for prioritizing research in computational mechanics, engineering design, and the development of sustainable materials that cut across the entire department in a wider scope,” he says. 

Influential wide-ranging career

Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, on May 19, 1932, Connor attended Boston College High School and received his bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees in civil engineering from MIT. Before he returned to MIT to become a faculty member, he went to work at the Army Materials Lab in Watertown, designing missile systems during the Vietnam War. While on sabbatical in 1983, he served as the dean of the Department of Engineering at Northeastern University and the director of the MIT Sea Grant Program.

Over the span of his career, Connor’s research in structural mechanics attracted the interest of the international community. He spoke at conferences around the world and consulted on many engineering projects, including the Hancock Tower glass crisis, the Twin Towers in New York, and the Parthenon in Greece, among many others. His papers were cited and published among the top engineering journals, and he was honored with numerous awards, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Thessaloniki in Greece. He authored many books on structural engineering, the boundary element method, motion-based design, and computational fluid mechanics. His books have been used in doctoral programs at universities around the world.  

Connor led a rich and adventurous life outside of his academic one. Known as “Jerry” to his friends and colleagues, Connor traveled to more than 25 different countries around the world with his wife, Barbara, but was especially fond of the Provence in southern France. Some of his memorable adventures included taking the family by Volkswagen bus throughout Europe during the holiday periods and, during a sabbatical from MIT in 1970, sailing to England on the Queen Elizabeth 2 with his then-young children.

Connor is survived by his wife Barbara, and by his six children: Patricia and her husband Richard, Stephen and his wife Madeline, Brian and his wife Michele, Michael and his wife Christine, Mark and his wife Kathy, Tracy and her husband Maurice, and 14 grandchildren. Gifts in Connor’s memory can be made to Boston College High School.

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