William R. Dickinson, Major Figure in Plate Tectonics and Pacific Archaeology, Dies
A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Dickinson made key contributions to several subdisciplines of geosciences and to the archaeology of the South Pacific.

By Mari N. Jensen, UA College of Science
July 27, 2015

William R. Dickinson, the University of Arizona geoscientist who integrated the fields of plate tectonics and sedimentology and also helped trace the migration of humans through the Pacific, died in his sleep on July 21 while on an archaeological field trip in Nuku'alofa, Tonga. He was 83.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Dickinson made key contributions to several subdisciplines of geosciences and also to the archaeology of the South Pacific. Not only was he a significant contributor to the "plate tectonics revolution" in the 1960s, he later studied ancient sedimentary rocks to reconstruct past movements of the Earth's plates and envision ancient landscapes.

"Bill Dickinson left few areas of geology untouched. He used the mineralogy of sand grains to give great insight into how tectonic provinces on Earth differ from each other. His work provided a unifying theme that could be applied across the entire globe and in very different geological settings," Thure Cerling, chair of the Geology Section of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote in an email. 

"He applied his extensive knowledge of mineralogy not only to the distant geological past, but also to the understanding of trade routes across the Pacific Islands through the examination of the temper of pottery sherds. He bridged the disciplines of geology and archaeology," added Cerling, a Distinguished Professor of geology and geophysics and of biology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Dickinson was an expert on the formation of the North American part of the Cordillera, the mountain system that runs from Alaska to Chile. In addition, he and colleagues figured out that the sand that forms the scenic red rocks and canyons of the American West, including Bryce, Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, originated in the Appalachian Mountains.  

"Bill Dickinson was a bigger-than-life guy in a bigger-than-life place," said his close colleague George Davis, UA Regents' Professor Emeritus of geosciences and former head of the UA Department of Geosciences.

"Bill helped in the whole discovery and introduction of plate tectonics — and then proceeded to so tightly integrate tectonics and sedimentology that he created a new field of endeavor. … I've never known anyone who had such focus when he was going after the solution of the problem — I mean never. This guy was able to put all of his intellectual and field work faculties into just assaulting a geological problem and bringing it to its knees."

He also knew what problems to tackle, said his stepson Jon Spencer, senior geologist at the Arizona Geological Survey in Tucson. "He had a really good vision for what problems we needed to understand if we really wanted to understand how the Earth works."

Dickinson, Davis and several colleagues established the Laboratory of Geotectonics within the UA Department of Geosciences. The lab developed partnerships with petroleum and mining companies. Davis said the UA-industry relationships provided no-strings-attached money to help fund research and provided a way for UA faculty and students to connect with research geologists in industry.

Dickinson's former doctoral student Timothy Lawton, professor emeritus of geological sciences at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, said, "Bill had this insatiable appetite for knowledge."

Dickinson told Lawton that upon arriving at a South Pacific island to do research: "When you're walking down the stairs from the airplane you can just flip open your field notebook and start taking notes."

Dickinson had been conducting research in the South Pacific since the 1960s. He realized he could help archaeologists trace the migration path of people from island to island and find sites of past human habitation, said his colleague David Killick, a UA professor of anthropology.

"Archaeologists track these migrations in the Pacific by the pottery that people carried along with them," Killick said. The pots were made with clay combined with sand from where the pot was made.

By collecting sand from various islands and comparing it to the sand in a particular pot, Dickinson could figure out on what island or island group a pot had been made. To do so, he examined thin sections of the pot fragments under a microscope.

Although Killick has now taken up doing those analyses for parts of the Pacific, he said for about 40 years Dickinson did almost all of that work. "He was revered by the Pacific archaeologists. Earlier this year they had a symposium in his honor at the Society for American Archaeology in San Francisco."

"I really enjoyed associating with him. He was intellectually rigorous, he was insightful, he was modest and self-deprecating, he was funny. I will miss him — he really was a great man," Killick said.

Dickinson was renowned for his ability to make key observations in the field and to synthesize enormous amounts of data. Those abilities, combined with his disciplined approach to science and his enormous energy and enthusiasm, fueled his tremendous productivity.

Although he formally retired in 1991, Dickinson continued his research unabated. More than half of his 298 articles, chapters, field guides and comments were published since he retired, including 15 publications from 2013 and 2014. Dickinson was in the midst of writing at least one publication when he died, Spencer said.

Not only was he a prodigious researcher, Dickinson was dedicated to educating both undergraduate and graduate students. He was the principal adviser for 42 master's students and 43 doctoral students.

He championed the importance of undergraduate teaching because a geology professor whose course Dickinson took while a junior in college changed his career path from engineering to geology, Davis said. 

Dickinson wrote in an email to Davis, "Every single student is worth whatever it takes. Think back to Aristotle. He tutored Alexander the Great, and who could have imagined his future when he was a dumb teenager? Not even Aristotle was that wise, but I suspect he gave his charge full effort nonetheless."

Spencer, Dickinson's stepson, was one of the young people Dickinson influenced.

"When I was in high school, the plate tectonics revolution was just getting rolling. Bill made it clear that there was a revolution going on. When I went to college I decided I wanted to be part of the revolution," Spencer said, adding that he has spent all of his adult life talking with Dickinson about rocks.

"Bill was a fascinating guy," Spencer said. "He had an ear for rural people — he'd go up and ask a rancher could we go through his property and then talk to him for half an hour. He really knew horses well, he was a wonderful story teller, he had huge experience in all kinds of places in the West — and he was an absolutely first-class scientist."

Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1931, Dickinson moved to California as a teenager. His parents raised Arabian horses near Santa Barbara. He earned a bachelor's degree in petroleum engineering from Stanford University in 1952. He earned his master's degree and doctorate in geology from Stanford University in 1956 and 1958, respectively. He was an officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1952 to 1954, and in 1958 he became a faculty member at Stanford University, where he advanced through the ranks to full professor.

He joined the UA faculty as a professor of geosciences in 1979, was head of the UA Department of Geosciences from 1986 to 1991 and retired in 1991 as a UA professor emeritus of geosciences.

His service to his profession includes being president of the Geological Society of America, initial chair of the Geological Sciences Board on Earth Sciences of the National Research Council, chair of the U. S. Geodynamics Committee and chair of the Geology Section of the National Academy of Sciences.

His numerous honors and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1965 to live in and study the geology of Fiji, the Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America in 1991, election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1992, the Sloss Award of the Geological Society of America in 1999, the SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology) Twenhofel Medal in 2000, and the Geological Society of America’s Rip Rapp Award for Archaeological Geology in 2014. He was also a Geological Society of America Fellow and an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow.

Dickinson’s second wife and constant companion, Jacqueline (Jackie), pre-deceased him. He is survived by his first wife, Margaret (Peggy) Palmer Dickinson; his brother, Rufus Dickinson, and sisters, Edith Tipple and Maxi Decker; his sons, Edward and Ben; stepsons, Jon and Brian Spencer; nine nieces and nephews; three grandchildren and four step-grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Donations can be made to the William R. Dickinson Field Trip Support Fund, which provides funding for field trips for geosciences students. Mail donations to William R. Dickinson Field Trip Support, Department of Geosciences, Gould-Simpson Building, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721. Checks should be made out to "University of Arizona/Geosciences." Please put "WRD Field Trip Support" in the memo line.

Extra info

William Dickinson tribute page


2014 video interview with Dickinson



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