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Mete A. Sozen

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Mete A. Sozen Obituary
Mete A. Sozen

Lafayette - Mete A. Sozen, longtime Purdue professor and Lafayette resident, died April 5, 2018 while he and his wife Joan were visiting the home of their younger daughter in suburban London. He was a few weeks short of his 88th birthday.

Professor Sozen had a 65 year career in experimental structural engineering research and was a leader in his field. Among his many innovations were the use of an earthquake simulator to test scale models of structures, which led to research that changed how buildings are designed to resist shaking, and the creation of a vastly simplified seismic evaluation method, making safe building practices easier to adopt. He supervised over fifty PhDs, many of his graduate students going on to become, themselves, leaders in structural engineering. Between his academic research and his positions at the VA and State Department, he was on-call to travel to major earthquakes. He consulted and lectured around the world, was on the team investigating the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma in 1995 and led the team investigating the attack on the Pentagon in 2001. In 2006, he was named by the Applied Technology Council, a nonprofit research organization which studies the effects of natural hazards on the built environment, to their list of the top seismic engineers of the 20th Century.

Mete Avni Sozen was born in Istanbul, Turkey on May 22, 1930 to a prominent Georgian-Turkish family. He was educated in Istanbul at English boarding schools and graduated high school having just turned 15. His English high school was not accredited in Turkey, so he planned to attend Cambridge University. During a gap-year imposed by his family, he felt bored and took the Turkish national college entrance exams on a whim. He passed and was accepted to the prestigious Robert College (now Bogaziçi Üniversitesi), an American school in Istanbul. Although his inclination was to study history or literature, the young Republic of Turkey was still recovering from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the devastation of World War I, and engineers were badly needed to rebuild infrastructure. They were the heroes of the time, so he chose to study engineering.

He earned his BS from Robert College in 1951, and was admitted to the University of Illinois for graduate school, earning his master's degree a year later. He spent a year working as a professional engineer, first in Oakland, CA, and then in New York City. He lived for a short time in Greenwich Village (where he occasionally drank with the poet Dylan Thomas), but when his social life started to interfere with his work,("My friends would have fun all night and sleep all day. I couldn't do that.") he moved to suburban White Plains choosing to spend his evenings in a math class at Columbia. He returned to Illinois in the fall of 1953 to earn his PhD, initially under the guidance of Prof Nathan M Newmark, finishing with Prof Chester P. Siess as his advisor. Upon earning his doctorate in 1957, he was offered a position on the faculty and became a full professor in 1963.

Professor Sozen began his career investigating pre-stressed concrete, but soon shifted to the design of earthquake-resistant structures. In 1966, working with the MTS Corporation, he designed and built the first earthquake simulator used for structural research. For the next 25 years he and his graduate students used the simulator for research which ultimately provided the insight that earthquake-resistant design should not be based on "force", the approach which had been prevailing for decades, but on "drift" - the degree to which the floors in a building will move with respect to one another during an earthquake.

In 1994, Professor Sozen took early retirement from Illinois to become Karl H. Kettelhut Distinguished Professor of Structural Engineering at Purdue University. He was a driving force behind the creation of the Bowen Laboratory for Large-Scale Civil Engineering Research which established Purdue as a leading school in experimental structural research. In these early years at Purdue he told a family member gleefully that he felt like a graduate student again. It was at Purdue that he developed with Dr. Ahmed F. Hassan the Hassan-Sozen index, a vastly simplified method to rank low-rise reinforced concrete buildings in vulnerability to earthquakes -- essentially a rule for the ratio of wall and column areas to floor area. Also at Purdue he and his student Turel Gur produced a first-of-its-kind analysis of the damage to a 2.3 km viaduct crossing a seismic fault near Bolu, Turkey. Their use of photogrammetry in this study was also a first. He became Professor Emeritus at Purdue in May of 2016.

Outside of engineering, Prof Sozen was a voracious reader of books on science, politics, and history. He loved poetry, particularly in Turkish. Beginning in the early 1970s he and his wife Joan made trips at least yearly to Turkey, during which they developed a keen interest in ancient sites, which are abundant there. Eventually they restored houses in an abandoned village in Western Turkey where they would spend summers entertaining their many friends (amongst whom numbered many colleagues and former students), showing them the nearby ancient cities of Priene, Miletus, Didyma, Ephesus, Aphrodisias, and many others, and taking them on tours throughout the rest of the country.

Professor Sozen was known for his sharp wit, and his engaging and memorable technical talks that drew inspiration from far-ranging topics. He was devoted to his graduate students and looked after their careers after they graduated. He was a stickler for clear, simple, technical writing. His capacity for work was tremendous: Like his mentor Newmark, he spent most evenings and weekends in the lab or at his desk. On the rechristening of the Civil Engineering Building at Illinois as The Nathan M. Newmark Civil Engineering Laboratory, he proposed that a commemorative t-shirt be made with the motto "If you're not here on Sunday, never mind on Monday." To call his a work "ethic," though, is questionable, since work for him was akin to a love affair. He said on many occasions that when he got up in the morning he couldn't wait to get to his desk. Often on weekends after attending concerts or parties, he would return to work an hour or more before bed. He revered the professors under whom he had trained and been mentored at Illinois-- Newmark, Siess, Ralph Peck-- and the teachers before them - Harald Westergaard and Hardy Cross, and did much to preserve their legacies in talks and papers.

Professor Sozen won many awards and honorary degrees. A complete list of these and more in-depth information on his career is available in a tribute by colleagues and former students at He was interviewed about his life and career by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in recent years. An edited transcript will be published in June 2018 and will be available at

Upon his retirement, a series of lectures at Purdue entitled "The Art of Teaching Engineering Art" was created in his honor. He was to have given the final one in the spring of 2019. Instead, the final lecture will be given in October by his former student, Professor Polat Gulkan of the Middle East Technical University, as a memorial.

He is survived by his wife of 47 years Joan, a son Timothy, daughters Adria and Ayshe, and grandchildren Oliver, Giselle, Cooper and Leo.

The family asks donations be made to a scholarship planned at Purdue University (please contact Don Fry at the Purdue Research Foundation, [email protected]) or to the Mete A. Sozen Fellowship Fund through the University of Illinois Foundation.
Published in the Journal & Courier on May 16, 2018
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