UC Berkeley News


R. Brady Williamson

22 August 2007

Robert Brady Williamson, a pioneer in fire-safety engineering, died of melanoma Aug. 1 at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. A resident of Berkeley, he was 73.

Williamson's work 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.


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 the flammability and combustibility of certain materials than previous tests used at the time.

It was Williamson's corner test that revealed the high flammability of cellular-foam plastics, commonly used as building insulation, colleagues said. Building codes in the U.S. later banned the use of uncovered foams as a building insulation material.

Williamson also served as a technical consultant with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in a 1973 lawsuit against the plastics industry and the American Society for Testing and Materials. The resulting settlement not only eliminated misleading test methods but, through the creation of an industry-funded Products Research Committee, did much to foster future fire-safety scientific research.

Williamson was born on Nov. 19, 1933, in New York state, and attended middle school and high school in Kansas City, Mo. 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 studying for his degrees, he worked as a research physicist at Raytheon Company and as a graduate assistant and teaching fellow at Harvard.

After earning his Ph.D. in 1965, Williamson worked as an assistant professor of civil engineering at MIT for three years. In 1968 he joined the faculty of Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; he was promoted to full professor in 1979. Following his retirement from Berkeley in 2001, Williamson 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, and 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; four children from a previous marriage; a brother; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service has been scheduled for 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 7, in the Great Hall at the Faculty Club.

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.

- Sarah Yang