UC Berkeley NewsView of Campanile and Golden Gate Bridge
Today's news & events
News by email
For the news media
Calendar of events
Top stories
Untitled Document
Press Release

Professor emeritus and mechanics of collision expert Werner Goldsmith dies at 79

– Werner Goldsmith, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, an international authority on the mechanics of collision, and a pioneer in the biomechanics of head and neck trauma, died Aug. 23 after a brief illness. He was 79.

He died peacefully in his Oakland home, surrounded by his wife and children.
 Werner Goldsmith
Werner Goldsmith (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Best known for his classic textbook "Impact," Goldsmith had a 55-year academic career as a mechanical engineer and educator at UC Berkeley. He served as an expert consultant in several high-profile actions, including the two trials evolving from the beating of Rodney King. Recently, he devoted much of his energy to research on shaken baby syndrome, mounting a campaign in 2001 to caution physicians and prosecutors to use biomechanics in assessing apparent cases of child abuse.

"My father had a brilliant mind and tremendous energy," said his daughter, Andrea Goldsmith, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, who credits her father with inspiring her to go into engineering.

"He was working on a paper, proofreading and editing the week before he died. He always finished things with perfection." The paper, "Brain injury in infants and children," co-written with John Plunkett, M.D., is scheduled for publication this year in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology.

"Werner was a great man, with friends all over the world," said Professor Emeritus Jerome Sackman of UC Berkeley's Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, a friend and longtime colleague. "Post docs and graduate students came from Asia, from Europe, from all over to work with him, and many of his students are now holding leading positions in government, industry and first-class universities all over the world."

Goldsmith's 1960 monograph, "Impact: The Theory and Physical Behaviour of Colliding Solids," was the first textbook to systematize the mechanics of collision. Reprinted in 1998 by Dover Publications, the book analyzes the mechanics of colliding solids in everything from car crashes to refinery explosions and remains the premier textbook in the field.

A registered mechanical and safety engineer for the state of California, Goldsmith was sought after as a consultant for nearly 50 years in the areas of impact, vehicle collisions, head and neck injuries, and the effectiveness of protective devices such as sports and armed forces helmets. In May 1992, he was consulted by the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office to provide expert testimony in the prosecution of police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. He only accepted four to five such cases a year, everything from accidents caused by the tipping of all-terrain vehicles to quadriplegic or paraplegic injuries resulting from football and other sports.

"He testified sometimes for the defense, sometimes for the prosecution, whatever side he thought was correct," said George Leitmann, a Professor in the Graduate School at UC Berkeley and Goldsmith's second Ph.D. student. "He was a person of very strong convictions that were very firmly held and very firmly expressed."

After the publication of "Impact," Goldsmith moved from wave propagation and impact phenomena in military and other applications to rock mechanics and biomechanics. Although primarily an experimentalist, he always accompanied his results with analytical and numerical models. His seminal contributions included developing the foundations of the boundary element method (BEM), a powerful calculation tool used in numerical analysis when purely analytical methods of evaluation will not suffice.

Goldsmith was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, on May 23, 1924. An only child, Goldsmith emigrated in his early teens to the United States, the only member of his family to escape Nazi Germany. His parents, Siegfried and Margarethe Goldschmidt, died in Auschwitz.

He attended high school in New York City and Mount Vernon, New York, then the University of Texas, where he received his undergraduate degree in just three years and a master's degree in mechanical engineering in 1945, the same year he became a U.S. citizen. He supported his education by working as a country club bellboy, a newspaper boy, a typist at the university library, and a reader.

After two years as an engineer at Westinghouse Electric Corporation and an instructor at the universities of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, Goldsmith came to UC Berkeley in 1947. He completed his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in just two years, simultaneously holding an appointment as instructor. He earned his degree in 1949 and was then appointed assistant professor, becoming a full professor by 1960.

Goldsmith's research was supported by 40 grants and contracts, and he produced more than 225 publications and invited surveys. He generated a combined total of 80 master's theses and Ph.D. dissertations among his students. He retired in 1987, but was immediately recalled as a Professor in the Graduate School to continue his research and supervision of graduate students. In 1997, he wrote "Mechanical Engineering at Berkeley: The First 125 Years," tracing the history of mechanical engineering on campus.

In the early 1970s, he co-founded the Graduate Group in Bioengineering, which would later evolve into the departments of bioengineering at both UC San Francisco and, in 1998, at UC Berkeley. Goldsmith's significant role in the genesis of the department very recently was recognized by his appointment as professor emeritus of bioengineering, an appointment that required approval from the chancellor's office. Since 1951, Goldsmith served as a consultant and mechanical engineer to the U.S. Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, Calif., investigating trajectory of missiles, susceptibility of materials to explosives, and other aspects of ballistics. In 1966, he was invited to chair the Head Injury Model Conference of the National Institutes of Health, working with neurosurgeons to pioneer modern medicine's understanding of the biomechanics of head and neck injury. He also served as a member of a National Research Council Committee, evaluating the efficacy of the Materials and Weapons Directorate of the Army Research Laboratories.

Goldsmith's many awards included a Guggenheim fellowship and two Fulbright fellowships. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Academy of Mechanics, and an honorary member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In honor of his 70th birthday, an entire issue of the International Journal of Impact Engineering was devoted to his work. In 1995, he received UC Berkeley's prestigious Berkeley Citation and, in 2001, he was honored by the UC Berkeley College of Engineering with its Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award.

An avid traveler, Goldsmith once boasted about using all of every sabbatical available to him. In addition to his native German and English, he also spoke French and Greek, and collected maps as well as stamps depicting maps. As a younger man, his interests included playing classical piano and tournament bridge.

Goldsmith is survived by his wife, Penelope Goldsmith of Oakland; daughters, Andrea Goldsmith of Menlo Park and Remy Margarethe Goldsmith of Oakland; son, Stephen of Santa Rosa; and four grandchildren.

Donations in his memory may be made to the Berkeley Engineering Annual Fund, College of Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, 208 McLaughlin Hall (1722), Berkeley, CA 94720-1722; or Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project, P.O. Box 1597, Burlingame, CA 94011-1597.