Iain Finnie was born on July 18, 1928, to Scottish parents in Hong Kong, where his father worked as director of a British-owned dockyard. In 1940, Finnie, with his mother and sister, moved to British Columbia when British civilian women and children were ordered to evacuate Hong Kong during World War II.
After graduating from high school after only two years, Finnie left Canada to attend Scotland’s University of Glasgow, where he graduated in 1949 with a bachelor of science degree with first-class honors. He completed his M.S. and Sc.D. degrees in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1950 and 1953. While at MIT he was trained by such luminaries as Jacob Pieter Den Hartog, a world expert on mechanical vibrations; Wallodi Weibull, author of what is widely considered the world’s most popular probability model for life data; and Milton C. Shaw, a renowned materials expert.
After graduating from MIT, Finnie moved to Emeryville, California, to work for Shell Oil Development Company. In 1961, Finnie joined the faculty at UC Berkeley as an associate professor and was promoted to full professor just two years later.
In 1965, as part of a UC team led by Erich Thomsen, a recently deceased Berkeley emeritus faculty member, Finnie helped establish the engineering department at Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile.
In 1967 he received a Guggenheim Award, a rarity for engineers, to study brittle solids—research that took him from a South African gold mine to a rock drilling site in Switzerland. In 1974 he received an honorary D.Sc. degree from the University of Glasgow.
Iain Finnie was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1979 and was honored with recognition by appointment to honorary membership in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers International (ASME) in 1983. He received the ASME Nadai Medal in 1982. When he retired from UC Berkeley in 1993, Finnie received the Berkeley Citation, the highest honor the campus bestows.