In the 1960s, before the age of computers, the rapid-fire brain of Canadian structural engineer Douglas Wright solved a monumental problem that had perplexed engineers for years. Although curved surfaces existed in architecture, like Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, they lacked a formal design methodology that could predict how such surfaces with few, if any, intermediate supports would hold up under the strain of excessive snow, howling gales or earthquakes. After years of research, Dr. Wright, at the University of Waterloo, figured it out.
His predictive mathematical model, still in use today, was instrumental in the design of many architectural landmarks including Mexico City’s Sports Palace, the domed Cinesphere and Forum at Toronto’s Ontario Place, and the pavilions of the Toronto Zoo and Vancouver’s Bloedel Conservatory. Dr. Wright was also a structural adviser on Toronto’s SkyDome (now known as the Rogers Centre), which has a fully retractable domed roof that remains an engineering marvel.
“For him innovation was inevitable. He loved an experiment," recalled Rick Haldenby, a former student of Dr. Wright’s who is now a professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo. “He loved domes. They were, he said, ‘a metaphor for the infinite.'”
Dr. Wright, who eventually became president of Waterloo, received many awards during his lifetime including a 1991 appointment as an officer of the Order of Canada. Two years later he became a Knight (Chevalier) of France’s Ordre national du Mérite. Suffering cardiovascular decline, Dr. Wright died at his home in Toronto on May 21. Upon his death, at age 92, he had 12 honorary doctorates to his name, and 88 books on reserve at his local library.
Always a curious child, Douglas Tyndall Wright was born on Oct. 4, 1927, in Toronto. After his father, George Wright, abandoned the family, his mother Etta Frances Tyndall raised her only child alone. She wanted her son to be a doctor. Instead, he chose to follow the path of his aunt’s husband, an engineer who inspired the boy to dream about creating buildings and bridges. In pursuit of that dream, Doug attended Danforth Technical School, followed by the University of Toronto where in 1949, he received a bachelor of science. In 1952, he earned a master of science from the University of Illinois, a school renowned for structural engineering. An astoundingly brief 18 months later, he graduated with a PhD from England’s Trinity College, Cambridge. To his disappointment, he learned that a PhD didn’t automatically guarantee employment. Dr. Wright completed a few engineering projects before academia beckoned at the fledgling University of Waterloo. He joined the faculty in 1958 as a professor before becoming dean of engineering.
During this period, he hammered out a curriculum for the engineering department, building metaphorical bridges between academia and business. One of Dr. Wright’s most important contributions to post-secondary education was implementing a co-op model that facilitates the interaction of students with businesses, according to former governor-general David Johnston, who was president of the University of Waterloo from 1999 to 2010, after Dr. Wright’s tenure in the role.
Mr. Johnston remembers getting a call from Dr. Wright, then a professor emeritus: “Doug said, ‘I want you to come over to my office and don’t tell me you’re too busy. You presidents deserve to have a little fun.' So over I went. He had three students with him. They had a great idea for a particular technological development. I served on the board of a company that he thought would be interested so we set something up and good things happened,” Mr. Johnston said in an interview. “Doug was very spontaneous and very results-oriented. He was the kind of guy who got things done yesterday.”
Dr. Wright often sat on the board of ambitious new ventures as an adviser or investor. His encouragement of Mike Lazaridis, co-founder of Research in Motion, led the entrepreneur to develop a wildly successful communication device known as the BlackBerry.
Francisco Castano, now head of Geometrica Inc., a company that designs and manufactures some of the largest space frame domes in the world, said from his headquarters in Texas, “Without Doug’s theories, his work and his investment, there’s no way my company could have enjoyed such international success.”
Fuelled in part by Dr. Wright’s energy, the little university chugged its way from obscurity to international recognition for the study of computers, engineering and mathematics.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Wright took respite from academia for a life in civil service. Bill Davis, then Ontario’s minister of education, put Dr. Wright in charge of the province’s Committee on University Affairs.
“Doug had a sense that, in Canada, we needed to change the university landscape. He pushed, prodded and pulled us with him as he pursued academic excellence and social relevance,” wrote Ken McLaughlin, author and professor of history at Waterloo. Dr. Wright spent five years as provincial deputy secretary for social development before spending a further year as Ontario’s deputy minister of culture and recreation. In 1981, Waterloo lured him back as president, a position he occupied for 12 years.
One significant project that engaged Dr. Wright, during his time as president, was the digitization of 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Initiated by Oxford University Press, funded in part by the Canadian and British governments, the project took eight years to complete.
Dr. Wright dedicated a team of software engineers from his university to undertake the task of creating software to integrate various OED editions. In order to access specific information, they developed technology called a search engine, a precursor to search engines that would be later be used to navigate the internet.
This research project led to the establishment of OpenText, one of Canada’s largest software companies, which employed more than 12,000 people and had revenues of $2-billion last year.
By all accounts Dr. Wright’s magnetism, enthusiasm and persuasiveness were extremely appealing. While studying at Cambridge he fell in love with Margaret Anne Maxwell, a vivacious, art-loving Australian physiotherapist. She joined him in Canada where, in 1955, the couple married. They had five children.
Dr. Wright was devoted to his family. One day in 1972, he surprised them with the purchase of a 30-foot sailboat. He reasoned it was an activity they could enjoy together. Unconcerned that no one, including him, knew how to sail, he signed them all up for a one-week course.
“There were plenty of bumps and scrapes and running aground,” said Dr. Wright’s eldest son, Bill. He recalled an alarming experience of being buffeted by the wind while anchored in the Florida Keys. It was the first time the family had sailed in salt water or encountered coral heads.
“The boat was rocking wildly back and forth. We were all huddled below deck worried whether the anchor would give out. Dad got out his pencil and paper. He calculated variables like the surface area of the deck, wind velocity, the length of chain, the weight of the anchor and so on. He reassured us it would all be okay, and it was,” Mr. Wright said. “My dad was fearless.”
Although problem solving was the bedrock of his life and career, there was little Dr. Wright could do to ameliorate his wife’s developing illness. In her late 30s, Margaret began manifesting signs of schizophrenia, a serious mental disorder that can result in hallucinations and delusions. Even though his wife’s disease was harrowing, Dr. Wright stuck by her, supporting her as best he could until her illness required constant professional care. She died in 2010.
Dr. Wright’s second marriage was to Zella Wolofsky, a retired modern dancer who shared his life for 33 years. She greatly admired her partner’s enthusiasm, respect for others and wide-ranging interests. In an email, Ms. Wolofsky recounted an incident at a parking kiosk where Dr. Wright had gone to pay. When he called to her to join him she thought something was wrong. Instead, he wanted her to see a letter the parking attendant was writing in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. “Not only had Doug recognized the script as Amharic, he praised its sheer visual beauty. The attendant was beside himself with joy and pride. Doug had visited the man’s country years before so they had plenty to talk about,” she said.
A treasured family photograph, taken by Ms. Wolofsky, shows her husband sitting in his favourite Eames chair, reading. As his family expanded to include grandchildren, Dr. Wright determined to stay involved with their lives. “He taught himself to use Instagram at age 90 in order to keep in touch,” Ms. Wolofsky said. “The arrival of great-grandkids was like icing on his already enriched cake.”
Dr. Wright leaves his wife, Ms. Wolofsky; sons, William, Clyde and Robert; daughters, Sarah and Anna; 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.