1968 – Publishes his discovery of the "J-integral" in the Journal of Applied Mechanics

James Robert Rice is one of the most accomplished American university professors of the last half century. His brilliant mind placed him on the fast-track to a professorship at Brown following his ground breaking work in fracture mechanics, an infant field of theoretical engineering when he began his studies.


Rice was born in Frederick, Maryland on December 3, 1940. His parents Donald and Mary were successful and visible members of their small community. Donald ran a gas station, started a profitable tire company, served three terms as a town Alderman, and one term as mayor from 1951 to 1954. His son expressed an early interest in engineering through his fascination with auto mechanics and love of the sciences at Frederick's St. John's Catholic Prep school.

Life at Lehigh

In 1958, Rice arrived at Lehigh to begin his studies in engineering. He quickly gained an interest in theoretical mechanics with particular focus on fluids and solids, and then flew his way through the mechanical engineering undergraduate program. His senior year he was recruited to take the first fracture mechanics course ever organized in the history of higher education, a course created by Lehigh's accomplished engineering faculty. By 1964 Rice had completed three degrees, his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D., in record time. His thesis titled "Theoretical Prediction of Some Statistical Characteristics of Random Loadings Relevant to Fatigue and Fracture," was an impressive start to a preeminent career in theoretical mechanics.

Discovery of the J-Integral

Brown University's leading solid mechanics research program recruited Rice for a post-doctoral position before his graduation from Lehigh. He continued the work he began in fracture mechanics as a student with his new peers at Brown. Focus was given primarily to crack tip stress analysis and plastic yielding. One year after arriving, the university offered Rice a tenure-track faculty job as an Assistant Professor. Possibly his most widely-recognized achievement came shortly following his appointment as an Assistant Professor. Rice discovered the "J-Integral" and published his findings in 1968 in the Journal of Applied Mechanics. The "J-Integral" represents the strain energy release rate of non-linear elastic materials. It is used to calculate the energy changes in a general class of solids due to cracking and enables practical applications of non-linear fracture mechanics. ASME utilized Rice's work to develop industry safety standards for piping and pressure vessel design. He received the ASME Henry Hess Award for his paper which is globally recognized as a fracture mechanics benchmark, cited over 1000 times.

Career in Fracture Mechanics

Rice was appointed to an Associate Professorship in 1968 and was made a Full Professor of Engineering in 1970. He and his team of seven Ph.D. research students received funding from NASA, NSF, the Office of Naval Research, and the Atomic Energy Commission during this period. Rice's work expanded to creep and creep rupture, a process that describes the gradual failure of a material under stress for long periods of time, and placed a heavier focus on fracture mechanics at a microstructural level. In 1973, he was awarded for his achievements with a Chair of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, the highest honor for a professor at Brown. He developed several new theories, including the Rice-Thomson model for brittle-ductile transition crystals, and conducted extensive research on applying his work to the cause and effect of earthquakes, fault-zone behavior, and rock fracturing. His work in this area is extensive and has greatly influenced the manner in which seismologists study earthquakes.

In 1981, Rice joined the engineering faculty at Harvard and was given the Gordon McKay Chaired Professorship in Engineering Sciences and Geophysics, a position created for him. His continued work with the origin of earthquake complexity demonstrated earthquake slip is "pulse-like" rather than one continuous motion. He began studying three-dimensional fracture mechanics soon after his arrival at Harvard, and continues to influence findings in that difficult field. Rice remains an active, distinguished professor at Harvard. His students admire him for his clarity and complete independence from the textbook during his lectures.

Awards and Recognition

Rice has received countless awards and published numerous papers in his forty-plus years in academia. In 1980, he was made a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He has also received fellowships from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, American Geophysical Union, American Academy of Mechanics, and is a foreign member of the Royal Society of London. In 1994, he was given the ASME Timoshenko Medal for his significant contributions to theoretical mechanics.

Tuesday, December 3, 1940
Frederick, MD
B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. Mechanical Engineering
Notable Achievement: 
Discovery of the "J-Integral", member of the NAE