Stanford University
Bill Dickinson greeting Jon Claerbout

Bill Dickinson greeting Jon Claerbout, the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Professor of Geophysics, Emeritus. Credit: Stacy Geiken

Bill Dickinson Honored with Distinguished Alumni Award

BY Elizabeth De Oliveira
ClockJuly 08, 2015

Dr. William R. Dickinson (BS ’52, MS ’56, PhD ’58) a key figure in the plate tectonic revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, is the inaugural recipient of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award. The award was established to recognize highly significant, long-lasting contributions to the civil, government, business, or academic communities by members of the school’s alumni body.

Dickinson was honored at the school’s diploma ceremony during Stanford’s Commencement exercises June 14. Presenting the award, Pamela Matson, Chester Naramore Dean and Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor of Environmental Studies, praised Dickinson for his contributions to science.

“He was a thought leader in relating plate tectonics to the accumulation of sediment in Earth’s major sedimentary basins, and is widely recognized as the father of modern sedimentary basin analysis,” Matson told more than 1,000 assembled faculty and graduates, their families, and friends.

For this and other research contributions, Dickinson was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He has also received the Penrose Medal, the Geological Society of America’s highest honor, and served as president of that organization. But none of those honors top this one, he says, “Because my blood runs pure Cardinal.”

Bill Dickinson began his Stanford career in 1948 as a 17-year old aspiring engineer. But in the spring quarter of his junior year, he took a geology class and “everything changed,” he remembers.

“If a guy can make a living having this much fun,” he thought, he wanted in. His ROTC commitment demanded that he finish his degree in four years or be sent to Korea without benefit of an officer’s commission, so he combined his geology and engineering credits to receive a degree in petroleum engineering from what was then called the School of Mineral Sciences.

After his tour, he returned to Stanford to earn his master’s and PhD in geology and was offered a position on the school faculty. He remained at the university for the next two decades—two really important decades in the Earth sciences, as it turned out.

Today’s graduate students learned about plate tectonics in elementary school, but the revolutionary concept was unheard of until the mid 1960s. Dickinson was trained as a classical geologist and field mapper well before that. In fact, he had been on the Stanford faculty for five years before J. Tuzo Wilson published the paper that started it all, “dropping plate tectonics on the scene, like a great big, hairy gorilla at a cocktail party,” says Dickinson.

“We all had to sit up and take notice,” says the tall, charismatic professor whom students dubbed Cowboy Bill for the figure he cut in the field. “I can remember sitting around on the floor with 10-12 Stanford grad students around me, reading the papers that had just come out, line by line. It was a halcyon time—stimulating, exciting, and extremely fruitful.”

“His existing knowledge of sediments allowed him to essentially create a new field explaining how their distribution on the Earth’s surface could be traced to plate tectonic processes,” explains Senior Associate Dean Steve Graham, the Welton Joseph and Maud L'Anphere Crook Professor and one of Dickinson’s early graduate students.

“I was lucky to be just peaking in my career when plate tectonics hit,” agrees Dickinson. “I hit my stride at a pretty unique time in the history of Earth science.”

His work has had profound economic as well as scholarly implications. “He’s not an economic geologist, but most economic deposits are in sedimentary rocks,” explains Gary Ernst, the school’s former dean and Benjamin M. Page Professor, Emeritus. “He understands geochronology and petrology, so he can integrate where sediments came from and why they are deposited where they are.”  

At heart, Dickinson’s a field man, says Ernst. “He loves to get his hands and feet dirty.”

“I enjoy figuring out what the rocks are trying to tell you,” Dickinson agrees. In fact, he appreciates his many years of fieldwork before the modern plate-tectonic framework was introduced.

“I learned a lot of plain old ground truth without a lot of theoretical overlay,” he says. “Now people learn plate tectonics first, so they always have to fight the tendency to think that everything fits.”

In 1979, Dickinson left Stanford to join the faculty at University of Arizona, where he served as chair of the geosciences department as it rose to prominence. Though retired from teaching, he publishes and

continues to have a profound influence on the field, including through the work of those he has trained.

“His PhD advisees—his academic ‘children’ and ‘grandchildren’—fill the majority of professorial positions in the field of sedimentary basin analysis in American colleges and universities,” says Graham.

The award presentation capped off a full weekend of Stanford activities for Dickinson, one that began with his presenting to the school’s Sedimentary Group. He shared his new research on the evolution of the Gila River drainage system, which is the subject of his recent paper in Geomorphology. He also joined a group of current faculty and students on a field trip to several geologically important sites on the Pacific coast.

Three men sitting
Bill Dickinson (center) hangs out with his son, Edward Dickinson (left), a history professor at UC Davis, and Don Lowe (right), Stanford's Max Steineke Professor in Earth Sciences. Credit: Ryan Petterson


Later, at a faculty reception in his honor, Dickinson said the award filled him with both joy and humility, because “Stanford is a whole lot of who and what I am.

“When I moved on to the University of Arizona 35 years ago, I like to think I brought along some timeless Stanford ideals: devotion to hard work, allegiance to scientific integrity, and the core idea that students are the focus and the nexus—the root reason for the whole academic enterprise.”

What’s next for Bill Dickinson? This summer, he returns to Fiji and Tonga on a geoarchaeology mission. Doing fieldwork in Fiji in 1965, he happened upon a team of archeologists trying to determine the provenance of some newfound pottery fragments. This serendipitous interaction launched a parallel career for Dickinson that has so far spanned more than a half century, dozens of Pacific islands, and over a hundred publications.

In some cases, he determined that sand in the pottery could not have come from the same island. “As an independent line of evidence, that turned out to be huge for understanding the radiation of Polynesian peoples across the islands,” says Graham. “Bill has produced a career’s worth of publications in that field alone.”

Dickinson notes with characteristic modesty that his legacies in both sedimentary geology and geoarcheology lie not in single provocative discoveries, but in cumulative bodies of work.  

“And I’ve had quite a long time to do it,” he says.

Editors Note:

After a long and influential career in plate tectonics and the geological sciences, Bill Dickinson, 83, passed away on July 21, 2015 in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, on the eve of his field research season there.

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