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Our Profession’s Debt to Daniel W. Mead

Jul 1, 2012

Recently ASCE announced the winner for 2012 of the  Daniel W. Mead Prize for Students . This award and the  Daniel W. Mead Prize for Younger Members bear the name of the man who established and endowed them. Mead was an honorary member of the Society and also served as its president, and throughout his distinguished career he championed ethical standards and ethics education within the civil engineering profession. This article highlights a small portion of his professional achievements.

Daniel Webster Mead was born in 1862, and for nearly 30 years he was both a private consulting engineer and a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His numerous works on water power and other engineering subjects reveal an interest in ethics that spanned nearly the full length of his career. His 1916 textbook,  Contracts, Specifications, and Engineering Relations , devotes a full chapter to "ethical relations" and stresses the importance of codes "that govern the professional relations of the engineer or architect to his client or employer, to other professional men, and to the public."

In 1936 Mead was elected president of ASCE, a role that afforded him an opportunity to have a significant effect on the Society's ethics activities. At the time he took office, ASCE's Code of Ethics had been largely unchanged since its adoption, in 1914. While some of its seven provisions still exist in today's code-including the obligation to act for clients as a faithful agent or trustee (today's canon 4) and a ban on false or malicious statements about another engineer (category [g] in the guidelines to practice for canon 5)-the 1936 code as a whole was extremely narrow, focusing on competitive practices between practicing engineers. Canon 4, for example, deemed it "unprofessional and inconsistent with honorable and dignified bearing" for a member to compete "on the basis of professional charges, by reducing his usual charges and in this manner attempting to underbid after being informed of the charges named by another," and canon 5 barred an engineer from "review[ing] the work of another Engineer for the same client, except with the knowledge or consent of such Engineer."

Mead was concerned because the Code of Ethics seemed to him to apply only to engineers serving in independent general practice and therefore addressed the needs of only a small portion of the Society's membership. He believed that the Society should develop ethical standards that would be applicable to all members of the profession and the Society.

In his address at the Society's 1936 annual conference, President Mead called for a code of ethics that would "cover as far as possible the best thoughts on the duties of the engineer in all his activities." As he explained, "The profession is equally interested in the consulting engineer and the engineer in general practice, and in the engineer in public works, in the service of corporations, in various combined relations, in business, in expert legal work, and in the subordinate positions of the profession, and also in the student who is intending to enter the profession."

Mead expressed these concerns to the Board of Direction, which in turn referred the matter to its Committee on Professional conduct. While the members of this committee agreed with Mead's contention that the Society should develop ethical guidelines that would meet the needs of all members of the profession, they also felt that attempting to include provisions for all areas of practice would make any code unduly long and complicated. The committee recommended instead that the board appoint a member to draw up informal ethics guidelines that would serve as a basis of discussion. Any formal change to the code would come later.

The board gave Mead the task, and in 1941 the Society published his  Standards of Professional Relations and Conduct . This 30-page work is both an enumerated list of principles for engineers to follow in their daily lives and an eloquent argument for the need for an established statement of ethical principles. As Mead put it, "Just as precedent in the design and construction of engineering structures is of value when similar structures are being designed and constructed, so principles of conduct established by the experience of one's predecessors are of value in the consideration of one's own line of action."

Many of Mead's recommendations dealt more with professionalism and deportment than with ethics per se. For example, in a section entitled "Code of Courtesy," Mead states that an engineer "should not take himself or others too seriously.... He should not fail to smile and use courtesy to all-equals and subordinates as well as superiors. This includes greetings, tone of voice, and consideration for the personal comfort of all who enter his office."

Other provisions, however, forthrightly addressed ethical questions and are at the heart of most current engineering codes of ethics. Here are some examples:

  • "The engineer should engage in no occupation nor undertake any project that is contrary to law or inimical to the public welfare."
  • "It is unprofessional for an engineer to undertake professional work for which he is not qualified by education, training, and experience."
  • "It is unprofessional to give an opinion on a subject without being fully informed as to all the essential facts relating thereto and as to the purposes for which information is asked. The opinions should contain a full statement of the condition under which such opinion applies."
  • "In all his actions, the engineer should avoid the appearance of evil; he should not, by word or deed, indicate that he is willing to compromise with either legal or moral standards."

Few would dispute that these principles have been recognized and upheld by the engineering profession since its earliest days. Indeed, many engineers at the time felt that it was therefore unnecessary to capture these "fundamental principles" in a written code. In recognizing the importance of having a tangible statement of an engineer's duty to other professionals, clients, and employers, as well as to the public at large, Mead's manual expounded precepts that would finally be incorporated into ASCE's official  Code of Ethics  some 30 years later.

Mead was also a tireless campaigner for ethics education. In  Standards of Professional Relations and Conduct , he opined that many of the mistakes engineers make could be averted by better ethics training at school and during the early years of their careers, and that, just as in learning the rules of a game or sport, exposure to a written code would better enable engineering students and young practitioners to "follow the rules of the game in playing the most important game of life."

In 1939 Mead established an endowment for the two ASCE awards that bear his name. Each year, the winners of the  Daniel W. Mead Prize for Students  and the  Daniel W. Mead Prize for Younger Members  are selected on the basis of an essay response to an ethics question. For more information about these prizes, visit leadership-and-management/awards/ .


  • Anderson, M.P. "Daniel W. Mead, Pioneer Educator, Ethicist, and Consultant."  Ground Water  44, number 2 (2006): 319-22.
  • Mead, D.W.,  Contracts, Specifications, and Engineering Relations  (New York City: McGraw-Hill, 1916).
  • Mead, D.W. "The Engineer and His Code."  Civil Engineering  6, number 8 (1936): 499-501.
  • Mead, D.W.,  Standards of Professional Relations and Conduct: Manuals of Engineering Practice, No. 21  (New York City: ASCE, 1941).

© ASCE, Civil Engineering, July, 2012

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE's hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-asce (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case, that some details may have been altered for purposes of illustration or confidentiality, and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.