John L. Wilson, professor emeritus in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), passed away May 30, 2023, at the age of 82.

Wilson, who retired from teaching in 2017, played a critical role in advancing Lehigh’s CEE research into the digital age through the development of new computer tools and research processes.

He joined the Lehigh faculty in 1982 as an associate professor of structural engineering. Soon after, he built the CEE department’s computer-aided engineering (CAE) laboratory, which was regarded as one of the most advanced civil engineering facilities in the nation when it opened in Fritz Laboratory in 1984.

To fund the effort, the Lehigh Alumni Bulletin reported, Wilson “organized a consortium of engineering and computer leaders from industry and government, and persuaded half a dozen corporations to donate $2.3 million toward the construction of a modern laboratory…with twenty-four terminals powered by one of the most powerful superminicomputers in the U.S.”     

The computational lab used early artificial intelligence capabilities to tackle structural engineering challenges that previously had relied on traditional algorithmic methods.

Wilson championed the approach, which would “draw upon the accumulated knowledge of experts in analyzing complex technical problems” and develop validated mathematical models, as a way to make research faster and more efficient, facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration, and more widely disseminate Lehigh’s wealth of expertise in the field.

“Civil engineering deals with large, multidisciplinary projects in which lots of data is accumulated,” he said in the Bulletin. “Computer graphics can reduce fifty pounds of undecipherable printed output to a half-dozen pictures.”

Wilson helped make large-scale structural engineering projects possible as a member of the leadership team behind Lehigh’s Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLSS) Engineering Research Center. The team secured funding for the landmark center in 1986, competing with 146 other institutions for the highly selective National Science Foundation award.

Wilson served as associate director for research at ATLSS for about 10 years, working alongside then-ATLSS director John W. Fisher

“At that time, ATLSS was not only a place where we did experiments—it was an experiment itself,” says Richard Sause, Lehigh’s Joseph T. Stuart Professor of Structural Engineering, who is the current director of ATLSS and served as the founding director of the Institute for Cyber Physical Infrastructure and Energy (I-CPIE). “As the NSF would shift its idea of what an Engineering Research Center should be, John would help us adapt to those changes and flourish.”

As a researcher, Wilson developed software at the interface of structural design and fabrication. His work was a precursor to current Building Information Modeling Systems.

He spent eight years developing the Hypermedia Bridge Fatigue Investigator, a software package—built on Fisher’s extensive experience studying steel-structure failures—that directed inspectors “to the most critical locations of a bridge instead of treating every aspect of a bridge equally.”

Wilson contributed to the development of life-cycle engineering, in which engineers use sophisticated modeling techniques to consider an extensive menu of factors in determining costs and making decisions in large-scale infrastructure projects.

He also collaborated on software for the design of earthquake-resistant structures as well as the use of remote sensors in toxic waste disposal sites.   

Later in his career, Wilson served as the CEE department’s graduate program director and leader of the structural engineering faculty.

“For nearly two decades, he imparted a love of learning and critical thinking to all around him,” says Sause. “His students have become leading engineers throughout the world. And the growth of Lehigh’s structural engineering faculty and their commitment to pursuing big ideas using cutting-edge approaches and technology is his enduring legacy.”

“John was one of the most engaged members of the CEE faculty,” says professor Shamim Pakzad, chair of the CEE department. “He was always a resource for the students and faculty colleagues, someone who knew the problems, knew the rules, and was willing to put in a lot of time to help. He was always passionate about guiding and advising graduate students to make sure they succeeded. For more than a decade, he was asked by virtually all PhD students in the structural engineering program to serve on their dissertation committees.”

Wilson earned a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, a master’s degree from Yale University, and a BS from Tufts University.

Prior to joining Lehigh, he was manager in the decision sciences division at Sun Corporation and served as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

A funeral will be held June 9 at Faith Church (6528 Hamilton Blvd, Allentown, PA), with a calling hour beginning 10 a.m. and the service following at 11 a.m. After the funeral, there will be a luncheon at 12:30 p.m. at Lehigh Country Club (2319 S Cedar Crest Blvd, Allentown, PA). In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations may be made to Samaritan's Purse. 

John L. Wilson

John L. Wilson, professor emeritus, structural engineering

Main image: Professor John L. Wilson (right) talks with graduate students Paul Wiedorn and Steve Sadofsky in the computer-aided engineering (CAE) lab. The photo appeared in the Winter 1985 issue of the Lehigh Alumni Bulletin. Photo credit: Joseph P. Edelman.