Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Sheer Genius of Dr Victor de Mello

The Sheer Genius of Dr Victor de Mello

Published on: May 14, 2011

More in: Panorama

By Mário Cabral e Sá

It is a pleasure to learn that some of our internationally famous fellow Goans’ progeny measure to their parents’ high intellectual and professional standards, and have to their credit achievements that give the land of their birth enormous pride.

But for Mr António Manoel Pereira, retired mechanical engineer who worked for many years in São Paulo, Brazil and was introduced to me by connoisseur of all things Goa, Percival Noronha, I would have known nothing about Dr Victor de Mello. Pereira who hails from Benaulim has a passion for his village that produced many eminent persons, from the internationally famous microbiologist Dr Idalêncio Froilano de Mello, to the Venerable Pe José Vaz and the brilliant writer and physician, Dr Bettencourt Rodrigues. According to Mr Pereira’s research, de Mellos were in their Hindu past, Sinais.

One thing leading to another, I spoke to Prof C S Gokhale who heads the Department of Geotechnology of the Goa Engineering College and he confirmed to me that Victor de Mello was till his death (one or two years back) one of the world’s leading lights of geotechnology. If alive, De Mello would have been 85-year-old yesterday.

I was told by another source, but I could not obtain confirmation of this input, that Victor de Mello was one of the consultants for the government of Italy in the mission, so far unsuccessful, of stabilising the inclination of about 16 feet from the perpendicular of the 180 ft high Tower of Pisa. It is in Tuscany and is one of Seven Wonders of the World. It took over centuries to build it; 1174-1350. Galileu was born in this Tuscanian town, which is one of the most beautiful of Italy.

Prof John B Burland who was a friend of professor de Mello, delivered the first Victor de Mello lecture which was established in 2008 by the Brazilian Association for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering (ABMS), the Brazilian Association for Engineering Geology and the Environment (ABGE) and the Portuguese Geotechnical Society (SPG) to celebrate the life and professional contributions of Prof Victor de Mello, Prof de Mello had been a consultant and academician for over 5 decades and had important contributions to the advance of geotechnical engineering. Each year a worldwide acknowledged geotechnical expert is invited to deliver this special lecture.

Prof John B Burland, CBE, DSc(Eng), Freng, FRS is Professor of Civil Engineering at the Imperial College London, UK. After having worked for 13 years at the Building Research Station, in 1980 Prof Burland was appointed to the Chair of Soil Mechanics at Imperial College London. He was Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Investigator at the Imperial College. He has been responsible for the design of many large ground engineering projects such as the underground car park at the Palace of Westminster, the foundations of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, the stabilisation of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City and was a member of the Italian Prime Minister’s Commission for stabilising the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He received many awards and medals including the Kelvin Gold Medal, the Harry Seed Memorial Medal of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Gold Medals of the Institution of Structural Engineers, the Institution of Civil Engineers and the World Federation of Engineering Organisations.

Professor Burland said on the occasion, "Words cannot adequately express how privileged I feel to have been invited to deliver this first lecture in honour of Victor de Mello. But a huge responsibility rests on my shoulders for I have no doubt at all that the Victor de Mello Lecture will become one of the major events of the geotechnical calendar."

"The more I thought about possible topics the more strongly I felt that this first lecture should attempt to capture something of Victor the person and Victor the engineer. The responsibility suddenly becomes even greater, for how can one adequately portray someone with the vitality, the breadth of interests, the culture, the creativity, the intellect and, yes, the sheer genius of Victor de Mello? My aim is to reflect on my friendship with Victor and share something of that. This is not the time or the occasion for a scholarly treatise on Victor’s engineering contributions. The word reflection means the throwing back of images and that is what I hope to do, to share some images of this remarkable man."

"During one conversation Victor expressed concern about the dangers of developing countries relying on the advice of experts imported from developed countries – a theme he returned to frequently in his lectures and writings. Referring to the classical story of the siege of Troy by the Greeks he would use the phrase ‘Beware the Greeks’, bearing gifts. A modern adaptation of the phrase, when you are being offered computer soft-ware is Beware of these gifts. Learning from these conversations with Victor, I tell my students from developing countries not to believe that the sophisticated developed countries have all the answers: Remember that your own special challenges are just as intellectually demanding as ours."

Victor de Mello himself said it in one of his many communications University students face inexorably biased messages in their search for their professional calling. The truth is that one must choose one’s love and love one’s choice, one cannot love a misrepresented life partner. The biases are inescapable: increased recourse to expensive construction equipment and to sophisticated calculations on idealised theories, and publication only of special successes or failures.

"Yet civil engineering is mostly concerned with jobs that have no thesis to propound and no advancements to document: just the art of diagnosing, deciding despite doubts and determining a course of action on the basis of valid principles digested and gut instinct. And it is the rewarding feeling of an aim fulfilled."

"Today’s overriding priority of pecuniary benefit/cost ratios has lessened the profession’s sense of purpose, and macro production has lessened its sense of identity. In the brave new world immediately after the Second World War, there was an emphatic distinction between the exponentially successful, military engineering, aimed at destruction, and its civil counterpart, dedicated to construction. Their similarity lay in the urgency of the need for decisions and action. Brazil, for instance, was forced to grow from 42M to 160M inhabitants."

"Writing about it now reminds me of the challenging pace I face there as an immigrant from Goa in 1949. The rate of changes imposed by modernity means the brave new world imprint never ceases, for dedicated professionals."

I confess it is not easy to write a biographical note on the past. One has to glean excerpts from conversations, with due care, partly because he himself says he does not like to look back on the past, and also because he comments that man’s brain has developed an amazing self-protective capacity to transform past experiences so that only the good, or the joke of the misfortune, resists the dimming of time. So what are really the facts worth noting? Moreover, as he always emphasises of others, his own life grew out of a sequence of chance events.

Who was Victor de Mello? His full name is Victor Froilano Bachmann de Mello. He was born in Panaji, Goa. On May 14, 1926, the third (second boy) in a series of six children. He owes his name Victor to the fact that his father, Professor, Medical Colonel, MP Idalêncio Froilano de Mello had just won the election to the Portuguese National Assembly; but owes the privilege of having had an exclusively home education by his German Swiss mother.

These six Bachmann de Mello children were entirely educated at home by their encyclopaedic cosmopolitan parents, the ambience ranging from the wildest bucolic tropical childhood liberty to the most meticulous European education, their home hosting regularly every international authority of sciences and arts that happened to travel through the East. So, while on the one hand, the children had lessons in swimming, roller-staking, tennis, horse-rising, etc, introducing these sports into the local society, and even earned prize pocket-money from the Municipality per cobra killed, on the other hand, they were all trained at the piano, besides different instruments constituting a home orchestra (Victor played the Spanish guitar), were all taught artistic drawing, water-colouring, prose and poetry writing, languages (French and German, some Italian in tales and songs, etc. They produced a by-yearly illustrated home journal, and so on.

International events of 1935 forced an about-turn in the family’s plans: foreseeing the world war and its outcome, the parents set aside the planned European professional educations, and progressively sent the children to study in British boarding schools in India. At the age of eleven Victor, armed with a few words of English, took the 24-hour train ride to Bangalore, and joined the 5th standard, second term, at Bishop Cotton Boys’ School, subordinated to Cambridge University. During the period from June 1937 to December 41, interrupted by an absence from April through Dec 39 because of a near-deadly undiagnosed appendicitis and home convalescence, he participated in most extra-curricular activities, including piano and organ playing of the school chapel because World War II had broken already. Unable to travel to ingress into the Zurich Polytechnicum to which he was admitted, he sought admission into famous Indian engineering schools (Roorkee, Poona, etc,) but, despite the completion of secondary schooling with the highest honours, he was dismayed to find himself denied it, in the face of a preferential system that did not countenance Portuguese nationality Goans. But the family’s recent close associations with the outstanding American Missionary surgeon Dr Goheen led him to embark on the 36-hour train ride to distant and legendarily feared Allahabad, to join the Ewing Christian College. Once again he was awarded most school prizes.

For the 3rd year of University Sciences he had to move once again, 1943, to Forman Christian College, Lahore, Punjab. At Forman Christian College his life changed completely, once again by an incredible coincidence. He was practicing the piano at the Principal’s home (practicing for the chapel organ, and nostalgia), when the Principal, having seen his first term’s grades, stopped him to ask what profession he intended to follow. Victor explained that he was merely gaining time, because he wanted to study civil engineering, hadn’t been admitted in India and couldn’t enter the Zurich Polytechnicum because Switzerland was surrounded by Nazi Germany. The Principal, Dr C H Rice, retorted, "Why don’t you go to MIT? It is an engineering school of the highest standard. Dr Rice was brother-in-law of President Karl T Compton of MIT, and wrote him a letter. Some weeks later a telegram arrived, simply stating "Victor de Mello admitted July 1, 1944. Karl T Compton."

But scholarship did not sever their broader interests. Victor led the founding of the MIT students International Association, coordinated lectures and debates on colonial policies of defunct countries, himself lecturing (in exchange for Rotary Club dinners) on the Portuguese, British cultures and organised authentic folk festivals of different countries based on the many foreign friends among the classmates. He even helped a Portuguese colleague (Conductor António de Almeida) organise the MIT Symphonic Orchestra, and so on.

He received from President Compton his diploma in June (exactly on the same date, hour, day-of-the-week in which 35 years later he was elected President of the International Society for Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering, in Stockholm 1981), and completed the remaining MSc units and thesis, under Professor D W Taylor, in September 1946. About to leave for Brazil under contract, he was convinced to change and stay on as Research Associate, to conduct the new Soil Solidification Research Contract the US Corps of Engineers had just given to MIT.

He had immigrated into Brazil to be a Brazilian, both because of deep-rooted cultural affinities, because of the intensely adolescent cosmopolitan atmosphere, and because of the nostalgic challenges of unopened frontiers of tropical civil engineering. His professional CV shows that he has been all over the world many times and, above all felt entirely at home with all peoples and cultures. But it is in Brazil and from Brazil that he has grown from his roots into a big tree.

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