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UC Berkeley Press Release

R. Brady Williamson, pioneer in fire safety engineering science, dies at 73

– Robert Brady Williamson, a pioneer in fire safety engineering science education and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, died of melanoma on Wednesday, Aug. 1, at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley. A resident of Berkeley, he was 73.

R. Brady Williamson
R. Brady Williamson (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Williamson's work significantly helped establish fire safety engineering as a recognized branch of science, characterized the fire hazards of plastics, and improved the safety of building codes used today.

Associates and friends remembered Williamson, who also held appointments at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the UC Forest Products Laboratory, as a creative and innovative researcher, known for his kindness and generosity toward his students and colleagues.

"He was noted internationally for bringing the dimension of science to bear on fire engineering," said Robert Sawyer, professor emeritus of energy at UC Berkeley's Department of Mechanical Engineering and a close friend of Williamson's. "He was just one of a handful of people worldwide working in the area of fire safety engineering science during the early 1970s. His background in physics was important in understanding how fire behaved, the speed with which fires spread, and the flammability of different materials."

Williamson's grounding in physics helped his fellow engineers question their reliance on empirical evidence, which dominated much of what was known about fire behavior 40 years ago, said Robert Bea, UC Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering.

"It's actually rare in engineering to have direct evidence, so it's important to keep going back to the fundamentals of science, and that's what Brady was so good at," said Bea, who first worked with Williamson on an investigation of the 1988 explosion and subsequent fire at the Piper Alpha offshore oil platform in the North Sea.

Colleagues credit the developments Williamson brought to the field of fire safety engineering science with addressing gaps in building codes in the 1970s. Specifically, Williamson's "corner test" - literally done in a corner of a room in which a small fire would be ignited - proved to be a far more accurate gauge of flammability and combustibility of certain materials than previous tests used at the time.

"The corner test had a geometry that better reflected how the material was used in real life," said Patrick Pagni, professor emeritus of fire safety engineering science in UC Berkeley's Department of Mechanical Engineering. "Where other tests would show material slowly melting, Williamson's test showed material bursting into flames. The corner test, and its updated version, the scaled compartment corner test, are now used by the International Standards Organization. Williamson has contributed significantly to current fire safety codes used in homes and industry."

It was Williamson's corner test that revealed the high flammability of cellular foam plastics, commonly used as building insulation, colleagues said. The material had previously been designated as self-extinguishing and slow-burning based upon old tests used by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).

"Largely because of this research, the United States building codes banned the use of uncovered foams as a building insulation material," said Vytenis Babrauskas, founder of Fire Science and Technology in Issaquah, Wash., and Williamson's first fire safety Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley.

Babrauskas pointed to Williamson's role as a technical consultant with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in a 1973 lawsuit against the plastics industry and ASTM.

"Williamson was pivotal in establishing a settlement with the plastics industry which, apart from eliminating misleading test methods, also fostered fire safety science research because the industry agreed to fund the Products Research Committee," said Babrauskas. "This committee in turn funded research on plastics hazards at the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as at various research institutes and universities. This helped make the late 1970s the high-water mark of concerted fire safety science research in the United States, a level which has not subsequently been exceeded. For this, we can thank Brady Williamson."

Williamson was born on Nov. 19, 1933, in New York state, living in various locations around the country before settling down in Kansas City, Mo., where he attended middle school and high school. He earned a bachelor of arts in physics and a bachelor of science and a Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard University in 1956, 1959 and 1965, respectively. While he was studying for his degrees, he worked as a research physicist at Raytheon Company, and as a graduate assistant and teaching fellow at Harvard.

His studies were briefly interrupted in 1961 and 1962 by the "Berlin Add-On," a U.S. military call-up of troops after then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev erected the Berlin Wall. Williamson was called into active duty as a member of the U.S. Navy Reserves, serving as an aviation electronics technician and an aircrewman with Air Anti-Submarine Squadron 915.

After earning his Ph.D. in 1965, Williamson worked as an assistant professor of civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for three years. In 1968, he joined the faculty at UC Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and was promoted to full professor in 1979.

At UC Berkeley, aided by a National Science Foundation grant under the Research Applied to National Needs program, Williamson established a fire safety engineering science program at a time when few people considered the research area a science.

"Since the mid-1970s, there have probably been more persons who obtained Ph.D. degrees in fire-related subjects from UC Berkeley than from any other university," said Babrauskas.

Colleagues noted that many of Williamson's students have gone on to become some of this country's most prominent fire science experts.

"He created an educational and research environment where we could try new things and then share them with the scientific community," Joseph Zicherman, one of Williamson's former Ph.D. students and president of Fire Cause Analysis in Berkeley, wrote in an e-mail. "He was one of the most productive members of the international fire research community over the past 20-30 years."

In 2001, Williamson retired from UC Berkeley, and the professor emeritus was appointed a Professor of the Graduate School, a designation reserved for retired faculty who are fully engaged in research and who continue to contribute with distinction to the graduate program.

He earned numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including the 2001 Arthur B. Guise Medal from the Society of Fire Protection Engineers and the 1988 Harry C. Bigglestone Award for Excellence in Communication of Fire Protection Concepts. He was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National Fire Protection Association, the International Association for Fire Safety Science and the Society of Fire Protection Engineers.

Williamson is survived by his wife, Nancy Brown-Williamson of Berkeley, who is head of the Atmospheric Sciences Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; their son, John Bradford Williamson of San Francisco; his children from a previous marriage, son, Robert Lowell Williamson of Incline Village, Nev.; and daughters, Katherine T. Bettencourt of Clio, Mich., Anne L. Curtis of Belmont, Mass., and Sarah T. St. John of San Jose, Calif.; a brother, Otis Turner Williamson of Kilmarnock, Va.; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service has been scheduled for 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 7, in the Great Hall at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club. Directions and parking information are available online at http://www.berkeleyfacultyclub.com.

Donations in memory of R. Brady Williamson may be sent to the Berkeley Public Education Foundation, 1835 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA 94703, for a fund to be used to further science education and for the educational enrichment of science teachers.