August 30, 2023

photo of J. Tinsley Oden in cowboy hat
J. Tinsley Oden. Credit: Oden Institute

J. Tinsley Oden, who was widely known as the founder of computational mechanics and the first director of what is now known as the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, died on Sunday, Aug. 27. He was 86.

His revolutionary treatise, Finite Elements of Nonlinear Continua, first published in 1972, is cited as having not only demonstrated the great potential of computational methods but established computational mechanics as a new intellectually rich discipline built upon concepts in mathematics, computer sciences, physics and mechanics. Computational mechanics has since become a fundamentally important discipline, impacting engineering practice and education worldwide, and laying the foundations for the thriving field of computational science and engineering.

Shortly after the book’s publication, Oden arrived at UT Austin in 1972 on a sabbatical as a visiting professor and in 1973 he was hired as a professor. The same year he started the Texas Institute for Computational Mechanics, the first manifestation of what was to ultimately become the Oden Institute.

Oden served as a faculty member in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics (ASE/EM) for half a century, and during his time as the Institute Director, was the Associate Vice President for Research. He held the Cockrell Family Regents’ Chair in Engineering #2 and was also a professor of mathematics and computer science. His research focused on topics in computational engineering and mathematics, including spectral elements, foundations of mathematical theory of finite elements, dual-complementary variational principles, finite elastic deformation, shell theories, among many others.

“Professor Tinsley Oden’s impact on computational science — spanning mechanics, subsurface modeling, materials, cardiology and oncology — cannot be overstated,” said President Jay Hartzell. “Fifty years after he founded it, thanks to Tinsley’s unwavering vision and unmatched ability to recruit renowned faculty, the Oden Institute is globally recognized as the trailblazing model for interdisciplinary computing research and education. It remains a magnet for talent and the home of the No. 1 ranked graduate program in computational science, engineering and mathematics. Tinsley’s passing is a tremendous loss for UT Austin and for the global computational science and engineering community.”

Oden’s vision for an interdisciplinary institute mobilized support from administrators and donors, most importantly Peter O’Donnell, Jr., the philanthropist and founder of the O’Donnell Foundation. His ability to demonstrate the power and potential of computational science helped attract the funding and research expertise that transformed a small research group into what is now a world-renowned institute.

“There are no words that can express the loss of our founding father,” said Karen Willcox, director of the Oden Institute. “Tinsley had an immeasurable positive impact on our academic field, on UT Austin, on the state of Texas, and on each one of us as individuals. He was a visionary and an intellectual genius, and he was one of the kindest and most humble men I have ever known. We will miss him more than he could imagine.”

photo of J. Tnsley Oden during his earlier years at UT Austin
J. Tnsley Oden during his earlier years at UT Austin. Credit Oden Institute

Throughout his career, Oden was an advocate of the idea of the Third Pillar of Science, saying that “computational science lies at the intersection of computer science, mathematics, science, medicine and engineering…extending the scientific method, and represents the single most important scientific advance in human history, forever transforming the way science discoveries are made and how engineering and medicine are done.”

Born on Christmas Day in Alexandria, Louisiana, Oden graduated from Louisiana State University in 1959 with his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and earned his Ph.D. in engineering mechanics from Oklahoma State University in 1962, where he also taught. He worked in the private industry for with General Dynamics in Fort Worth prior to accepting a teaching position at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and was the head of the Department of Engineering Mechanics prior to coming to UT Austin.

Known for his legendary work ethic, and often seen clad in his cowboy boots, Oden often came to the office on Sundays. Even though he retired in May 2023, he continued to come to the Institute daily even just a few weeks prior to his death. A prolific writer and researcher, Oden was author or editor of more than 800 scientific works including 57 books. He educated and advised more than 45 doctoral students and dozens of post-doctoral researchers.

“J. Tinsley Oden’s impact on the engineering field is immeasurable,” said Roger Bonnecaze, dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering. “He was a world-renowned pioneer in computational mechanics and a visionary academic leader. He worked tirelessly for half a century to make UT Austin the destination for all things computing — The Oden Institute and the Texas Advanced Computing Center are just two of many prominent examples of the legacy he leaves for generations of students and faculty to come.”

Among his numerous recognitions, he was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He served on a multitude of organizational, scientific and advisory committees, and was a founding member of the U.S. Association for Computational Mechanics (USACM) and the International Association of Computational Mechanics (IACM).

Oden held seven doctorates including six Doctor Honoris Causa and received numerous awards in recognition of his research accomplishments including the SIAM Distinguished Service Award, the SIAM Prize in Computational Science and Engineering, the John von Neumann Award, the Newton-Gauss Congress Medal, the Stephen P. Timoshenko Medal and the O.C. Zienkiewicz Medal, along with many others. In 2012, the USACM established the J. Tinsley Oden Medal. He was also inducted an honorary member of the ASE/EM Academy of Distinguished Alumni in 2020.

In 2017, he stepped down as Institute Director, and in 2019, the University of Texas System Board of Regents voted to rename the Institute after him.

“Professor Tinsley Oden was a pillar of the ASE/EM Department, the Oden Institute and UT Austin. His contributions to our department in teaching, research and service are monumental. He was the academic father and mentor to hundreds of students, postdocs and faculty. In addition, Tinsley was a true gentleman,” said Clint Dawson, professor and chair of the ASE/EM Department. “Personally, I owe much of my career to Tinsley. Because of his determination to build a world-class research institute devoted to computational science and engineering, a group of three faculty members, including myself, moved from Rice University to UT in 1995. I have many fond personal memories of Tinsley which I will always cherish. He will be sorely missed, but his legacy will live on.”

During a recent interview, when asked if the institute as it exists today is what he envisioned 50 years ago, Oden replied no, saying he couldn’t have dreamed of these things. “In the future, there will be applications in areas we can’t even dream about,” he said. “This won’t be solved without computational sciences and modeling. That’s an example of what faculty and future students at the Institute will be involved with — training the next generation.”

Oden is survived by his wife of 58 years, Barbara, his two children, daughter Lee and son Walker, one grandchild, and extended family.

photo of Barbara and J. Tinsley Oden
Barbara and J. Tinsley Oden. Credit: The University of Texas at Austin

Funeral services will be on Sunday, September 10, at Weed Corley Fish Funeral home, 5416 Parkcrest Dr., Austin, TX 78731. Visitation begins at 12:00pm, and the funeral starts at 2:00pm.

A memorial service will be held on Monday, September 11, at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center on the UT Austin campus. Light refreshments will be served at 8:30am and the memorial begins at 9:00am. At the conclusion, lunch will be served. Please RSVP for the memorial here

Per the family's request, those sending floral arrangements please send them directly to the funeral home. For those who prefer to make a donation in Dr. Oden's honor, please use this link.