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Hutchinson receives 2021 Centennial Medal

John Hutchinson, Ph.D. '63, is one of the world’s leading mechanicians

Article by Kelly Hahn

John Hutchinson

John Hutchinson, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading mechanicians, is also one of the field’s most beloved mentors and educators. He laid the foundations for modern research on the behavior of materials under stress, including nonlinear fracture mechanics and plastic deformation; his work ranges from theory to experiment to application, and he was at the forefront of the field in applying large-scale mechanics to the small scales of microelectronics and composite materials. He is the second most-cited researcher in solid mechanics, with more than 95,000 citations of his work on record—an astonishing degree of influence.

Hutchinson earned his B.S. at Lehigh University in 1960 before embarking on a more than 60-year career at Harvard: he completed his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with Bernard Budiansky in 1963—and was known as “the dean of Harvard rugby” when he played for the Crimson as a graduate student—joined the faculty in 1964, and is now Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Engineering and Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Mechanics, Emeritus. He has held appointments at the Technical University of Denmark and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has received numerous accolades, including the Timoshenko Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the highest international honor in applied mechanics.

One of Hutchinson’s graduate students was Zhigang Suo, Ph.D. ’89, Allen E. and Marilyn M. Puckett Professor of Mechanics and Materials at Harvard. “John has a good nose: he can smell a good problem and knows to work on it early, and he’s decisive,” says Suo. “When he was a student, solid mechanics was about big structures—bridges, machines, aerospace structures. But then people saw that they could begin to apply the same mechanics to small structures inside materials. At these scales, material still has a structure: it has atoms. It’s a big movement, applying previously large-structure mechanics to what we call mechanics of materials. Very few people really defined that movement; John stands out. And he still does research and remains hands-on to this day.”

Choon Fong Shih, Ph.D. ’73, a 2018 Centennial Medalist and president emeritus of two universities, also studied with Hutchinson as a graduate student. “John is like a good vintage wine: he gets better and better with time, and he enriches the lives of others,” says Shih. “There’s a social dimension to research, and John has always been so full of life; he’s adventurous and lives life to the fullest.” Hutchinson’s sense of adventure extends well beyond academia: he built his own cabin in New Hampshire, and he scales mountains on annual weeklong backpacking trips across the United States and Europe—group outings known as “Hutchinson Hikes.” When Shih hosted a symposium in Singapore in honor of Hutchinson’s 80th birthday, more than 100 of his colleagues and students were in attendance. “John is such a warm, friendly person, and he’s always so motivating and encouraging,” Shih says. “He has inspired generations of researchers and educators and engineers who serve society. That’s really a wonderful legacy.”

According to Venky Narayanamurti, Benjamin Peirce Professor of Technology and Public Policy, Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Physics, Emeritus, “John Hutchinson epitomizes all aspects of what makes someone a great professor: he’s a great scholar, a very good teacher, and somebody who really cares about people.” In 2000, Narayanamurti, dean of what was then the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, asked Hutchinson to serve as associate dean of academic programs and was thrilled when he accepted; in 2007, the Division became a School. “Harvard needed to change, and I knew John was one of the most distinguished members of the faculty,” explains Narayanamurti. “He was also such a good citizen. I would always go see John, first thing in the morning at eight o’clock, to get his good cheer. He is one of the finest people I have encountered at Harvard.”

Describing his ongoing enthusiasm for his work, Hutchinson has referenced jazz legend Duke Ellington, who, when asked in his 80s which of his songs he liked best, replied, “The one I am working on at the moment”—so it is with Hutchinson, who remains as active as ever in mechanics research. He also remains an exemplary University citizen. Frank Doyle, John A. Paulson Dean and John A. and Elizabeth S. Armstrong Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences, recently called on him, along with two other emeritus professors—Naranyamurti and former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis—to lead a strategic tiger team on refreshing the leadership structure of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “John is one of the most highly respected members of our faculty,” says Doyle. “He is recognized throughout the world for his scholarly contributions to the field of mechanics, as well as for his far-reaching impact as a generous and nurturing mentor. In so many spheres, including at SEAS, he has had a profound impact, and he continues to inspire all around him.”

John Hutchinson, for your foundational, wide-ranging contributions within the field of solid mechanics, and for your unparalleled warmth and generosity to generations of students, for whom you remain a continual source of encouragement and inspiration, we are proud to award you the 2021 Centennial Medal.

This article was originally published by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.