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Geophysics champion George Thompson dies at 97

Thompson’s dedication to Stanford spanned seven decades, from his years as a student to research contributions as a faculty member. Named Stanford Earth’s 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award winner, he chaired Geophysics for nearly 20 years, shaping it into one of the top departments in the country.

By
Danielle Torrent Tucker
May 24, 2017
George and Anita Thompson next to a coastal redwood
George Thompson and his wife, Anita, stand by a coastal redwood in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1996. Photo courtesy of Stanford University.

George Thompson, a Stanford alumnus and faculty emeritus who helped build Stanford Geophysics into a world-class department, died May 12 at his home in Palo Alto, California. He was 97.

A versatile leader, distinguished scientist and role model, Thompson impacted generations across more than 50 years of teaching at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). He was recently chosen as the 2017 Stanford Earth Distinguished Alumni Award winner – an honor reserved for those who have made outstanding contributions in government, business or academia – to be announced at the graduation diploma ceremony in June.

A humble scientist and leader

In addition to producing seminal research as a geologist and geophysicist working on mineral deposits and tectonics, Thompson is remembered for his humility and welcoming nature.

“He was more than a modest man,” recalled Gary Ernst, the school’s former dean and the Benjamin M. Page Professor, Emeritus. “When George retired, the university planted some trees and called it the Thompson Grove. I thought that was very appropriate. However, George went out and took down the sign – he didn’t want any fuss made over him.”

Thompson’s career at Stanford began in 1946 as a graduate student, when he was asked to teach the university’s first geophysics class – before there was a Department of Geophysics or School of Earth Sciences. He joined the Stanford faculty in 1949 and in 1989 accepted emeritus status as the Otto N. Miller Professor of Earth Sciences and dean of the school.

George Thompson views geologic data

Thompson served as chair of the departments of Geophysics (1967-86) and Geology (1979-82), as well as dean of the school from 1987 to 1989. In that time, he built the Geophysics Department, sourcing equipment donations from industry and attracting junior faculty who would bring unique breadth and excellence to Stanford Earth’s tectonic, volcanic and remote-sensing expertise.

“George was not only a great scientist; he was also a wonderful leader for the school and departments,” said Pamela Matson, the Chester Naramore Dean of the school. “He was a true role model who will live on in the students and colleagues he mentored.”

Ernst described him as the “consummate gentleman scientist.” He noted that Thompson always saw the best side of people. His former student Mary Lou Zoback, ’74, MS ’75, PhD ’78, recalled how Thompson welcomed students to the university and hosted a barbecue at his home every year.

“When I came to Stanford as an undergraduate, it was an intimidating place,” said Zoback, who credits Thompson with helping her to pursue a career at the U.S. Geological Survey. “George had this capacity – as department chair, he knew every student – to be so warm and welcoming.”

An active researcher

Focusing on the Basin and Range Province, Thompson’s groundbreaking research in the 1960s showed how gravitational contrasts created linear patterns in mountain ranges and valleys, a result of the stretching of Earth’s crust. He earned a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963, received the first George P. Woollard Award from the Geological Society of America (GSA) in 1983, was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1992, won the USGS John Wesley Powell Award in 1999, and received the highest honor of the GSA, the Penrose Medal, in 2008.

One of Thompson’s primary contributions was to integrate insights from research in geophysics and geology. He remained an active researcher through retirement, publishing in the Journal of Geophysical Research about the role of gravity in extension in 2016, at the age of 97. He had recently submitted a follow-up study with a former student, USGS co-author Tom Parsons, MS ’90, PhD ’92, about faulting in the Great Basin. Thompson also graduated seven PhD students after retiring in 1989.

His self-deprecating humor was legendary, according to Stanford Geophysics professor Simon Klemperer. When Thompson was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, he insisted to his colleagues that it was a “reward for longevity,” Klemperer said – yet, he took a quiet pride in his numerous former students and protégés who have similarly been honored.

Putting students first

As a mentor, Thompson was known for always putting his students first. Zoback recalled attending professional conferences during which Thompson would spend most of his time connecting her with the top researchers in the field. He gave inexperienced students opportunities to plan and run large-scale seismic experiments all over the world, and took as much joy from their mistakes as their discoveries, according to Parsons.

“It’s hard to describe the environment and opportunities he created for students,” Parsons said. “We were all treated as colleagues and independent researchers from Day One.”

Thompson strove to provide his students with as much help as they seemed to need and a lot of freedom, according to his Stanford Historical Society Oral History Program Interview, and took particular care to foster the careers of female scientists, such as Zoback, long before they were widely recognized as equal partners in the Earth sciences.

“Rather than telling me what to do, he guided me with questions so that I could go back to my office and have the joy, the thrill, of breaking through on problems on my own,” Zoback said. “That is a difficult thing to do.”

A love of family and nature

Colleagues and friends recall visiting his Thompson Tree Farm, a quarter-section of coastal redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He was passionate about spending time outdoors; he conducted fieldwork as an essential part of his career and camped out on student field trips well into his 80s.

Thompson doing fieldwork

“In addition to being a Stanford scholar he was also a family man and forester,” said Thompson’s daughter-in-law Yvonne Thompson. “We had many adventures.”

Thompson was born in 1919 in Swissvale, Pennsylvania. He earned a BS in geology from the Pennsylvania State University in 1941, an MS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1942, and a PhD from Stanford University in 1949. He was married to Anita Kimmell Thompson for 66 years, and they traveled together widely – from Newfoundland to Antarctica – in pursuit of geological interests until she passed away in 2010. Thompson used to say, “of all the awards that I have received in my life, Anita was the best,” according to Yvonne Thompson. He is survived by three sons and their partners, Bert and Sue; Dan and Denise; David and Yvonne; and three adult grandchildren, Paul, Laura and Ellen.

His family requests that gifts in Thompson’s memory be donated to the Thompson Postdoctoral Fellowship, which provides funding for up to two years of independent postdoctoral study in any field of geophysics. To do so, please contact Stanford Earth Director of Development Resources Cindy Gori at gori@stanford.edu.

Top left image: George Thompson, in 1984, displays the geophysicists' trademark: a seismic map used to make images of the Earth's crust, 10 to 20 miles deep. Photo credit: Chuck Painter.

Bottom right image: Earth Sciences Professor George Thompson, pictured in 1988, conducts a seismic field study in the Stanford foothills. Photo credit: Ed Souza.