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Professor R. G. K. Morrison was known as the father of rock mechanics in Canada, for his pioneering work in introducing rock mechanics and ground control as essential components of the design and safe operation of underground mines. The tribute is apt and well-deserved, yet understates the extent of the industry transformation brought about by his contributions, which remain as his worldwide legacy.
Morrison was born in Chesterville, Ontario. He enlisted in the armed forces in 1917 before completing high school, and served abroad as a pilot during World War I, and in the Caspian Sea area after the war. He enrolled in the Mining Engineering Department at the University of Toronto through the veterans program, and graduated in 1923. After working in northern Manitoba, he joined John Taylor and Sons, operators of the Kolar Gold Fields in India, in 1927, and worked with them in India until 1949.
Morrison began working in mines that were among the deepest (below 2,000 metres) in the world. Rock bursts were common, and Morrison barely escaped a burst that killed two colleagues during his first year in India. The tragedy triggered an interest in rock mechanics, and he soon became an authority on the sudden failures of highly stressed rock around mine openings. In the 1930s and ‘40s, such failures were a common problem in the deep, narrow-vein gold mines of Ontario. Mining consisted of “chasing the vein” amid a haphazard arrangement of openings plagued by severe stress conditions, ground falls and rock bursts that claimed the lives of 20-50 mine personnel each year. Morrison came to Canada on a visit to study the issue for the Ontario Mining Association, and won the prestigious INCO Medal in 1942 for his famous “Report on the Rockburst Situation in Ontario Mines”.
Morrison’s major contribution was in understanding and explaining how zones of stress rock would be formed around mine openings as they were enlarged. He introduced to Canadian mining practices the concepts of “doming” (the development of the stressed zones around mine openings) and sequential mining (the orderly, planned excavation of stopes in a sequence). His pioneering concepts brought about a dramatic reduction in ground-control accidents and fatalities, and also helped change mine design from an art to a science based on sound rock-engineering principles. The new practices made mining a safer and more predictable enterprise and were adopted at mines around the world. The number of lives saved and injuries prevented since Morrison’s pioneering work in rock mechanics can only be imagined.
Morrison joined McGill University in Montreal as Chairman of the Department of Mining Engineering in 1949, and continued his affiliation with the university after his retirement in 1966 as an Emeritus Professor. He fought to save engineering programs from cutbacks, wrote the first textbook on ground control, and was a respected industry consultant. He also supported industry associations, notably the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum, which awarded him its highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, in 1976.