George W. Pearsall was an internationally recognized engineer and education innovator who served Duke as dean of engineering twice, 1969 to 1974 and 1982 to 1983
During more than 30 years at Duke, Dean Pearsall made a profound and positive impact on Duke MEMS and the Pratt School of Engineering.
This page is a tribute to a beloved leader, teacher, mentor and friend to hundreds of students and colleagues.
In his own words
In this video created for the Pratt School of Engineering's 75th anniversary in 2014, Dean Pearsall discusses engineering education and research at Duke:
George Pearsall was born and raised on Long Island, NY. He served honorably in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Later, he earned a Bachelor of Metallurgical Engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and then joined Dow Chemical as a research engineer.
In 1961, he received a Doctor of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and served on the MIT faculty for four years before coming to Duke. His research focused on material failure analysis and its relationship to product safety and design.
During his time at Duke, he was a founding trustee of the Triangle Universities Center for Advanced Studies, Inc. (TUCASI), which facilitated the location of the National Humanities Center, the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina, and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park. He helped initiate Duke's Program in Science, Technology, and Human Values, and he was the first director of an experimental program at Duke in Technology and the Liberal Arts.
In 2001, he received the Triodyne Safety Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) for contributions to safe design.
Duke MEMS faculty created the George W. Pearsall Distinguished Lecture Series in 2013 as a lasting tribute.
Dean Pearsall died on February 21, 2016, at age 82.
- Dennis Brickman '84
I received a BSE from the department in 1984. My undergraduate curriculum consisted of taking practically every course Dr. Pearsall taught, including failure analysis, safe product design, polymers, and aesthetics design and culture. I still recall drawing a tree in the Duke Gardens in my idea sketchbook for his aesthetics course. Dr. Pearsall was also my faculty advisor for my departmental distinction project on the failure of a granite press roll.
Dr. Pearsall was instrumental in guiding me on my career path as a mechanical engineering safety and design consultant, serving as an expert witness in product liability matters. During my safe product design course at Duke, Dr. Pearsall directed me to the Triodyne Safety Library near my hometown in Chicago to perform research on my final course project. After graduating from Duke, I was employed at Triodyne for over 20 years as a safety consultant, due in large part to my unique safety education at Duke. It gives me great joy to reflect that Dr. Pearsall was awarded the ASME Triodyne Lifetime Safety Achievement Award for his contributions to the field based upon Dr. Dev Garg's nomination. Dr. Garg was my undergraduate faculty advisor at Duke. In fact, I had the honor of receiving Dr. Pearsall's award in New York City in 2001, since George's plane was canceled at the last minute due to the American Airlines plane crash near Far Rockaway two months after 9/11.
During my professional consulting career, I have had the distinct pleasure of working with Dr. Pearsall on an accident investigation consultation in Providence, R.I., where we spent a delightful afternoon hiking in the woods to inspect the location of a brush cutter accident.
My fondest memory of Dr. Pearsall is dining together with my 10-year-old son at a Durham steakhouse. My son was going to Duke to attend the Coach K summer basketball camp. George picked us up at the RDU airport sporting his seersucker sport jacket in 90-degree heat and chauffeured us to dinner. After hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon last week with my now-16 year-old-son and eating a steak upon reaching the top of the south rim, my son informed me that it tasted great but still did not compare to the steak we shared with George in North Carolina at the Angus Barn restaurant.
As my 53rd birthday approaches in May 2016, I am mindful that I am now of Dr. Pearsall's age during my time at Duke. I can recall George teaching me in his safety class that the most important quality is your reputation. I try to live by Dr. Pearsall's example every day as a role model, teacher, mentor, advisor, colleague, and fanatic for Duke sports. George has played a tremendous role in influencing my positive life career path, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
In March 2016, my high school sophomore son Jason participated in a National Science Olympiad competition at MIT. He is very interested in pursuing an education in biomedical engineering in the years to come. I can only smile inside, knowing Dr. Pearsall has sparked interest in the next generation of scientists and engineers.
Dennis Brickman, PE
Class of 1984
- F. Hadley Cocks
I was lucky to have met George during his years at MIT when he was an assistant professor, and I was a graduate student. We both had offices on the second floor of Building 35 in the Department of Metallurgy.
After George left MIT to come to Duke, I visited him several times on the way to Greensboro, where my wife’s parents lived. This would have been around 1966-1972. It was during one of these visits that George told me about the availability of a position in the mechanical engineering department, and the rest is history.
It was in the 1960s that the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology decided that mechanical engineers must take one course in materials science. George’s first task at Duke was to create that course and build a laboratory to go with it.
That course and that teaching laboratory continues to this day. He was a terrific lecturer, and his extensive and successful experience as an expert witness in numerous legal cases involving the role of materials in safe product design provided him with a wealth of stories with which he entranced generations of students.
He was a terrific and memorable teacher, and we were lucky to have had him be one of us.
F. Hadley Cocks
Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science
- Ana E. Diaz '77
As I sit here reflecting on my engineering career, I want to give credit to George Pearsall. Dr. Pearsall is the reason I became an engineer. He mentored me to transfer into the school of engineering when I was one semester short of (barely) graduating with a zoology degree.
Back in the spring of 1975, a rather confused zoology undergrad found her way into George’s EGR-83, “Structure and Property of Solids.” On the first day of class, George discussed stress and strain. I wondered why psychological disorders had anything to do with materials. We talked after class, and he encouraged me not to drop the course. Based on his support, the next term, I transferred from Trinity to the Engineering School. This was over the objections of my zoology advisor, who guaranteed I would flunk out.
This prognostication was probably based on my having gotten a D in his morphogenetic systems course. Two years later, I graduated with a much-improved GPA that had finally gotten high enough to allow me to get into grad school. Based on George’s suggestion, I also sat for the Engineer–in–Training (EIT) exam in the spring of my senior year.
Fast-forward 46 years to 2023. I’m a licensed PE in two states. I retired after 32 years of working for DuPont and now teach engineering as adjunct faculty at a local university. I model my teaching style on what I learned from George.
As I sit and reflect on my career, I have to say all this was made possible because of George Pearsall. I don’t know what he saw in that one confused undergrad with a pathetically low GPA who wandered into his materials engineering course. But it was George’s vision and encouragement that changed the trajectory of my career.
As I contemplate retirement, I've been thinking about people who made a difference. It was George who started the journey. If George hadn't encouraged me to stay in the materials class and suggested I transfer to the Engineering School, none of this narrative would have happened. George gets all the credit for stoking my interest in engineering, which continues to this day. I hope I can do him justice by continuing what he started.
Ana E. Diaz, PE
Class of 1977
- Earl Dowell
I met George Pearsall in the summer of 1983 when he was concluding his second tour of duty as dean of what is today the Pratt School of Engineering.
George had first served as dean from 1969 to 1974. In 1969, George was 36 or so and, as best I can tell, the youngest person ever to become dean of our school. By 1983, George had seen it all, or at least a good deal, and was very helpful to the next dean coming on board.
George had witnessed the transition in American science that followed Sputnik. The launch of that Soviet satellite in 1957 turned on the research funding spigot in Washington and the consequent strong growth of graduate education in the United States — particularly in the STEM fields — that has continued to this day. Pursuing the path of sponsored research was not George's thing, however, yet he was one of the most intellectually alive of our faculty.
George truly had a passion for learning and for sharing that passion with our remarkable students, especially undergraduates. He also was interdisciplinary before that became fashionable and in a more serious way than many. For example, he taught a course on structure alongside a zoologist and a sculptor to many fortunate students.
George had a gift for communication that led to success as an expert witness and informal ambassador for our school across the university and beyond.
The gift from Tom Lord that established the Lord Foundation and co-ownership of the Lord Corporation by Duke, the Cleveland Clinic, MIT and the University of Southern California was in significant part a result of the personal friendship George established with Don Alstadt, a key adviser to Tom Lord and the CEO and then-chairman of the board of the Lord Corporation after Tom Lord passed away.
When I would speak to those across the Duke, I would frequently be asked, "Do you know George?" Many did and had a favorable impression of engineering as a result.
George loved Duke and was tolerant and even encouraging of change, although he did always embrace the speed and direction. He was an important part of our history in MEMS and of the Pratt School of Engineering and Duke University. Those of us fortunate to know and work with him are blessed, as indeed we all are.
William Holland Hall Professor of Mechanical Engineering
- David Erdman '71
George Pearsall was an inspiring man. We engineering students of the late 1960s viewed him as the smartest and most approachable engineering professor. Every student who knew him was delighted and enthusiastic when he was announced as Dean of Engineering. As he was for most engineering students, he was my materials professor.
I was privileged to work closely with Dean Pearsall in my role as president of the Engineers Student Government from 1970 to 1971. My class of 1971 began with approximately 120 engineering students. We graduated only 77. Duke Engineering was at its lowest point ever.
I went to Dean Pearsall with a proposal to recruit students to Duke Engineering. He approved and supported the plan to entertain promising high school seniors with a weekend of Duke engineering. Likewise, he was concerned both to hear from students and to take the action that would benefit them the most.
No person during his era did more than George Pearsall to assure the survival and renaissance of engineering at Duke.
Class of 1971
- Devendra P. Garg
I met George Pearsall in early 1972 while he was serving as dean of engineering at Duke. George was a very innovative researcher and a terrific teacher. He had a charming personality and was extremely supportive of new ideas.
George always loved opportunities for the integration of engineering with the social sciences and humanities. Duke had recently established the Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs, and George was interested in having a closer relationship between the School of Engineering and the Institute via the development of interdisciplinary courses, collaborative research projects, and adjunct faculty appointments.
With George’s strong support, some of us in the School of Engineering and some faculty members from the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences established a certificate program in Science, Technology, and Human Values (STHV). Under this program, George developed and taught EGR175, entitled “Aesthetics, Design, and Culture.” This course was also cross-listed as Public Policy Studies (PPS) 175. Similarly, I developed and team-taught an interdisciplinary course number EGR174 entitled “Technology Assessment and Social Choice” in collaboration with Professor Tom McCollough of the Department of Religion. This course was also cross-listed as REL174 and PPS174. George held an adjunct professorship in the Department of Public Policy Studies.
My two daughters, Nisha and Seema, also graduated from the School of Engineering. They, too, like an untold number of engineering students, have very fond memories of their interactions with George. They sought and received invaluable advice from George when needed. We are all most fortunate to have known George Pearsall, served as his colleagues, and enjoyed his cordial friendship.
Devendra P. Garg
Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering
- Anand Kasbekar '85
I wanted to share a few memories regarding George Pearsall, a mentor, good friend, and colleague.
I first met Dean Pearsall in 1982 as a freshman in the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, where he and Dr. Phillip Jones, Dr. Hadley Cocks, and Dr. Marion Shepard became key figures with regard to my education and my career as an engineer.
This group of professors were role models for the type of faculty that Duke promotes as part of the culture that makes Duke a unique learning environment in which students can develop strong and lasting relationships with their professors. I am proud to say that Dean Pearsall, along with each one of these other faculty members, became a good friend as I progressed through graduate school and entered my professional career as an engineer.
I had the opportunity to take several classes with Dean Pearsall as an undergraduate and graduate student at the Pratt School of Engineering. As a professional, I was fortunate to have worked with him on several matters involving product failures, even as recently as last year, during which he made himself as readily available to me as he did over 30 years ago as an undergraduate student.
I will miss his visits to Durham and the great times we spent together.
BSE 1985, MS 1987, PhD 1994
- Miguel A. Medina Jr.
I arrived at Duke in the fall of 1976 as a very young and inexperienced assistant professor of civil engineering. The School of Engineering was small, and it did not take very long to meet all of the faculty. I was immediately impressed with George Pearsall – with his intelligence, his eloquence, his elucidation of the unclear, and his incisive description of the mission of an engineering faculty member given our size. His infectious laughter, sense of humor and optimism were a magnet for seeking his company and advice.
George and his wife Pat attended all of the social events and played an important role in doing so, inspiring us to grow with the school. My wife Maggie and I naturally gravitated to join them and were uplifted by their presence.
After the tragic and untimely death of Dean Alex Vesiç, George served again as dean of engineering from 1982 to 1983. His tenure had a calming effect on faculty and students and undoubtedly facilitated the arrival of Earl Dowell as our next dean. George left a lasting impression on all of us, particularly our undergraduates. His impact was felt well beyond engineering by the inclusion of talent throughout Duke in many of his initiatives. His legacy of excellence in teaching, providing real-life product failure examples in his lectures, is a model for the quality of education Duke engineering students should expect.
I was fortunate to have known him to have profited from his sage advice, and I will always remember that laughter.
Miguel A. Medina Jr.
Professor Emeritus of Civil & Environmental Engineering
- David Needham
I came to Duke Engineering in 1987 and joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS). As a chemist, I was assigned to teach "Structure and Properties of Solids” — the foundation materials course, E83.
I believe this was George’s course in which he not only lectured on all aspects of materials science and engineering with consummate ease he also introduced a series of labs with practical significance. On day one, students had to go out into the real world and find an engineering part, bring it back to the lab, and analyze it in terms of its composition-structure-property relationships that supported its function and mechanism of action.
He established this course because he saw an opportunity to recruit students into the department by offering a course that he knew all engineers, at some point, needed to understand. In those early years, I would go to his office and negotiate the initial maze of bookshelves, and the piles of papers and books on the floor, that he nevertheless had categorized and squeezed into the visitor seat. His "door was always open", and he would share his experiences in a way that helped me to integrate into Duke, engineering, and especially the MEMS family. We would discuss teaching, learning, various materials, art and design, which he saw as being very closely connected, and also offered another class where he shared this perspective.
One thing stands out in my mind that has fundamentally influenced my own learner-centric educational methods. He said, "The goal of teaching is not to cover the material in class but to uncover it."
This sage advice is just one snippet of the wisdom that George had and freely shared, the integrity and real-world perspective that he brought to his academic role, as well as to his other successful career of engineering consulting. This integration of academic engineering with real-world problems was perhaps his hallmark.
I also remember he easily laughed; he was pure joy.
David Needham PhD, DSc (Nottingham)
Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering & Material Science
- Thomas Woodard '69
As a member of the Class of 1969, I remember George Pearsall as an extraordinary professor and a caring human being.
A "B" student, I earned an A+ from George in his demanding Materials Science course, where he passed on his deep expertise in material failure analysis in the most compelling way – in the lab. In the spring, George and Pat could be found, with about 20 other stalwarts (including me), on the sidelines of a Duke lacrosse game. He'd pull up in his bug-eyed Austin-Healey Sprite, top-down, and watch a "club" game that was years away from becoming the popular varsity sport we know today. We would chat and laugh, and he'd remind me that I probably should have been studying. In my senior year, George said to me: "Woodard, one day, when you decide to work hard, you're really going to make something of yourself." Three years later, I decided to apply to Harvard Business School. There was only one professor at Duke I could possibly ask to write a required "past professor" recommendation. One professor who I knew would not only remember me but remember me in a positive light. George must have written a beauty because I was admitted – and later graduated as a Baker Scholar. George's confidence in me, something he saw early on, was a powerful motivation.
I was fortunate to serve on and later chair Earl Dowell's Engineering Dean's Council — later the Board of Visitors. So I was able to stay in regular touch with George, visiting him whenever I came on campus. Away from the office, he and Pat were always together, it seemed. You could palpably feel the love they shared. No matter what, Pat had the same happy disposition that George exuded.
I have no doubt that my story – how one man could have so profoundly influenced one life - must have been repeated literally thousands of times. George will be remembered for all he did for Duke, but even more for all he did for so many men and women who had the good fortune to intersect with his life.
Class of 1969