Ahmed M. Abdel-Ghaffar, obituary, bridge engineer, seismic engineering

Ahmed M. Abdel-Ghaffar, an internationally known University of Southern California civil engineering professor specializing in the analysis and monitoring of long-span flexible bridges, died April 17, at the age of 61, after a long illness.

Abdel-Ghaffar’s 1974 investigation of the dynamic characteristics of the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles, done when he was a graduate student, helped set new standards on how to collect, analyze and interpret structural dynamic measurements from complex, three-dimensional, extended structures. His research led to development of high-fidelity computational tools used to reliably design such structures to resist the action of earthquake ground motion.

The California Dept. of Transportation (Caltrans) used Abdel-Ghaffar’s computer program when it embarked on a major retrofit of the Vincent Thomas Bridge, and he served as a consultant, determining the damping characteristics of the bridge. “Professor Abdel-Ghaffar’s excellence and innovation in the area of long span bridges was known internationally and he was much beloved by his students,” says Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “He will be greatly missed by all of his colleagues here and around the world.”

“Building tall bridges that span engineering frontiers and withstand great earthquakes was Ahmed Abdel-Ghaffar’s passion,” says Jean-Pierre Bardet, chair of the USC Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering where Abdel-Ghaffar was on the faculty. “Ahmed was a gentleman engineer and a dedicated educator.”

Abdel-Ghaffar also made major contributions to understanding and analyzing the behavior of structures interacting with soil during earthquakes. He was among the pioneers who conducted forced-vibration experiments on the Santa Felicia Earth Dam and interpreted its recorded seismic and dynamic response.

A native of Egypt, Abdel-Ghaffar graduated in 1970 from Cairo University with a B.S. degree in civil engineering. After working for two years as an instructor in structural engineering at Cairo University, he attended the California Institute of Technology, where he earned a master’s degree in civil engineering in 1973 and a Ph.D. with an emphasis on structural dynamics and earthquake engineering in 1976. 

Abdel-Ghaffar’s pioneering research at Caltech as a doctoral student under Prof. George Housner brought him international recognition in the then-emerging field of sensor-based monitoring of long span flexible bridges.

In 1978 Abdel-Ghaffar joined the Materials Engineering Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago-Circle. He moved to the Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Department at Princeton University as an assistant professor the following year. He came to USC in 1987 as a full professor.

One of Abdel-Ghaffar’s many notable projects involved monitoring Golden Gate Bridge. A photograph in his office showed him and his students standing near the top of the bridge while collecting sensor data.

Abdel-Ghaffar, a resident of Rolling Hills Estate, is survived by his former wife and three children, all of whom are former or current USC students.