Obituary: Robert Legget
Saturday 07 May 1994
FEW PEOPLE make an impact on their profession and personal relationships as deep and lasting as that made by Robert Legget. He was an outstanding practitioner and teacher of engineering, a dedicated servant of the public and an enthusiastic author and historian.
Legget was born in Liverpool in 1904 of Scottish parentage. After graduating in Civil Engineering from Liverpool University in 1925, he worked for a firm of Consulting Engineers in London and on the Lochaber Water Power Scheme in Scotland. He moved to Canada in 1929, to take up a position with the Power Corporation of Canada and, subsequently, with the Canadian Sheet Piling Company.
During this period, Legget was actively developing his interests in geology and soils. Ten years of practical experience coupled with active participation in the growing new subject of soil mechanics, gave him an appreciation of the need for engineering education and research, closely linked to practice. In 1936, he made a deliberate career change, joining the staff in Civil Engineering at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and later moving to the University of Toronto, where he remained from 1938 to 1947. At these institutions he was instrumental in establishing courses in soil mechanics and in foundation engineering, among the first in Canada.
During his years as a professor, he kept in close contact with practical engineering by consulting on large-scale projects, including a study of the transportation system on the Mackenzie river. It was during this study that he became intrigued by permafrost and developed a lifelong interest in the Canadian North. Early in 1945, Dr CJ Mackenzie, President of the National Research Council, asked him to chair a committee to conduct important wartime research on tracked vehicles. After the war, the committee evolved and became a leading force in the development of geo-technical engineering in Canada. With his support, it encouraged research on soils, permafrost, peat, ice and snow. The evolution of the committee into the Canadian Geotechnical Society, with an annual meeting and a highly respected technical journal, is a tribute to his vision and enthusiasm.
In 1947, Legget was invited by the Canadian National Research Council to form and direct a Division of Building Research. He accepted the challenge, recognising that geology and soils were important factors in construction. His ability to plan and organise were soon proven. It was his conviction from the beginning that the division was to provide a research and information service to the construction industry, and he insisted that its staff keep in close contact with that industry and its problems. Within five years the division was in its own building and developing a high reputation both nationally and internationally. Drawing from his earlier experience, Legget ensured that special attention was given to problems of construction in cold weather, particularly in the Canadian North.
By the time he retired in 1969, the division had a skilled staff of 250 and extensive facilities for testing and research to respond to the needs of the construction industry in Canada. Twenty-five years later, now called the Institute for Research in Construction, it still occupies a pre-eminent position.
One of the tasks that he took on when he became the Director of the Division of Building Research, was the development of a National Building Code. At that time, only a few Canadian cities had a building code, and many of the more than 4,000 municipalities in the country had no regulations at all. With the goal defined, Legget put in place the committee structure that was to do the job. He chaired the main committee and recruited volunteer expertise from industry, universities and government to form the sub-committees charged with the various tasks. The committees produced the first National Building code in 1953 and the first National Fire Code in 1983. These codes are revised regularly and reissued every five years. Legget guided this work for 20 years, and by the time of his retirement he had met his goal. The codes had been adopted by every province and territory in the country, providing sound minimum standards for health and safety for practically all buildings constructed in these regions, a remarkable achievement in a country as large and diverse as Canada.
Legget's mastery of a subject began with a knowledge of its history. He contributed regularly to technical and other publications on topics of interest to the engineer and others. Many of these were based on serendipitous discoveries buried in old records and journals. This respect for the past is reflected in his books on railways and canals of Canada. The work that brings this out most clearly is his study of the Rideau Waterway, a canal connecting Ottawa and Kingston (205 kilometres), constructed between 1826 and 1832 by Lt-Col John By of the Royal Engineers.
Legget was the author of 12 books and the editor of several more. He recently submitted for publication the manuscript of his 13th book, the history of development on the Mackenzie river, another of his long- term interests. He wrote many papers, lectured widely and was presented with 12 honorary degrees and 15 special awards from professional and learned societies, in recognition of his achievements.
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