20 November 1930 to 15 December 2021
David was one of Australia’s foremost engineering geologists with a career spanning more than 50 years. An extraordinary human being as well as an extraordinary geologist, David was a legend in both Australia and New Zealand.
His career started with the Snowy Mountains scheme in 1951 (his MSc thesis in 1961 was ‘Geological studies for the planning and development of Tumut 2 underground power station’) and went on to span consulting, working and living in the Mekong Delta (1960-1963), teaching at the University of South Australia (1977-1993) and more consulting (until 2005).
David was well known to (and hugely respected by) many of NZ’s engineering geologists and geotechnical and dams engineers as a user-friendly, approachable reviewer (along with Laurie Richards) on the Clyde landslides project in the late 1980’s. In addition to his contributions to engineering geology in Australia, including as a mentor to some of their current leaders in the field (Alan Moon and Fred Baynes for example), David was an invited speaker at several conferences here in NZ including the Dams and Canal Symposium in Alexandra in 1983 and the 1992 International Symposium on Landslides in Christchurch. In 1996 he was awarded the John Jaeger Memorial Medal for “contributions of the highest order over a lifetime commitment to the geotechnical profession in Australia”.
Among his many contributions, David was a co-author of ‘Geotechnical Engineering for Dams’, a comprehensive (and much thumbed) textbook on the geotechnical and geological aspects of the investigations for, and the design and construction of, new dams and the review and assessment of existing dams.
For a number of NZ’s current and past senior engineering geologists, the retention of David Stapledon and Laurie Richards in 1988 to review work done on the landslides along the (future) Clyde dam reservoir was their first exposure to independent external review. Who needed that??? But it turned out to be one of the best things that happened to us – it influenced our whole careers in a hugely positive way.
I knew of David from his report on Kangaroo Creek dam. We (NZ Geological Survey at the time) had used it as a guide to our own Engineering Geological Construction Reports for Moawhango Dam and the Upper Waitaki scheme components, including Pukaki Dam and the Ohau canals.
To me, David was a breath of fresh air. He thought like I did, but better – in 1988 he had the advantage of nearly 40 years’ experience to my 10 – and he had a huge desire to share his learnings! David’s experience and supportive approach meant that he quickly earned our respect. From him, the engineering geologists on the Clyde landslides stabilisation team learned, and retained forever, what seem like the obvious but for many were truly beneficial lessons. These included:
- Clearly separate fact from interpretation in all of your work
- Record all factual information on maps, plans and logs at a useful (understandable) scale
- Present the interpretation (ground model) clearly on cross sections
- Support your interpretation with detailed information and references – it must be verifiable by others
- Know the limitations of your model and keep working to improve it
His key message was: In doing all of this, talk to the engineers using your information so that they understand the significance of the geology to their project.
I have spent the last 30 years trying to pass these (and many other) lessons on to the engineering geologists and engineers with whom I have since worked. In doing this I have tried to be like David – supportive, not critical, kind and friendly. If I end my career with half the respect that David had, I will be more than happy.