Earth and Planetary Science
EPS Near-Surface Geochemistry and Geobiology

Clyde Wahrhaftig

Clyde Wahrhaftig (1919 - 1994)

Clyde Wahrhaftig died April 6, 1994, in San Francisco, of heart failure, at age 74. Wahrhaftig was born in Fresno on December 1, 1919, and raised there, a member of a pioneer California family whose early members planted orchards in the Sacramento Valley. He earned a bachelor's degree in geology at Caltech in 1941, and a Ph.D. in geology at Harvard in 1953. He worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, full-time or part-time, from 1941 until his death. He taught at Berkeley for 22 years, from 1960 to 1982. His ties to Berkeley were much longer than the time of formal employment. They began in childhood, when he played along Strawberry Creek and hiked in the Berkeley Hills while his mother attended summer school, and they continued to his death.

Wahrhaftig was a Renaissance man, with a rich store of knowledge and love of literature, music and art, of history and philosophy. He had a profound human caring about the condition of his fellow man and society, and he gave active expression to that care in his professional, personal and political life. He was one of the more colorful characters of his profession; his personal idiosyncrasies gave rise to stories and anecdotes that friends cherish over a glass of wine or scotch.

Geologist and hiker, he spent his summers in the mountains--mainly in Alaska with the Geological Survey or in the Sierra Nevada. At Caltech he was a cross country runner. Of small, wiry physique, he had a reputation for walking colleagues, field assistants, and students into the ground, even as late as the 1970s. In the mid-1980s heart problems slowed him down. When he was no longer able to work in the higher mountains that he loved, he switched his attention to the lower Coast Ranges of California. He then became intimately familiar with the hills and cliffs and rock outcrops from the Peninsula to the Marin Headlands. To hikers in the region he became a familiar sight, with his silver hair and bushy silver beard, tramping the terrain, followed by acolytes of every age.

Wahrhaftig distrusted and disliked the speed of automobiles and airplanes and lamented the environmental consequences of combustion of fossil fuels. He refused to drive and arranged his life as much as possible around public transportation. Traveling to and from Alaska for field work he continued to use sea transport long after his colleagues took to the air; on sabbatical in the late 60s he took a ship (and a stack of good reading) to Australia. He used horse-pack trains to support field work in Alaska as long as the Survey would permit, and continued to use pack trains as long as he was able to work in the Sierra.

The Geological Survey (USGS), even more than the University, was the central institution of his professional life. At the Survey he was recognized as a scientific leader who vigorously abjured administrative responsibility. Nevertheless he was extensively consulted for his insight and advice on policy matters. In 1958-59 he served on a major advisory committee that resulted in restructuring of the Geological Division of the Survey.

As a member of the Berkeley faculty and Department of Geology and Geophysics Wahrhaftig was conscientious beyond the call of duty. In all tasks he did more than was necessary or expected, anticipating every criticism that might be brought against his view, and having at hand all the data and a keen sense of assumptions that influenced alternative views.

In all matters, until the end, he was characterized by probing intellect, personal energy, and drive for excellence. In his early professional years in Alaska he earned a reputation as a hard-driving task master, demanding much of colleagues and field assistants alike. He brought those same expectations to his students at Berkeley; in the 1960s some--not all--of his students felt that he expected too much. Later he became reconciled to human frailty, including his own. The measure of serenity he then achieved served to soften the harder edges of his drive for excellence. In the later decades his vast scope of knowledge and experience yielded a rich wisdom.

For most of his life Wahrhaftig was a closet homosexual in the macho world of field geologists. As such he suffered a full measure of repression, self-doubt, and dissimulation. From that pain he gained in humanity. In 1989, he chose the occasion of accepting the "Distinguished Career Award" from the Geological Society of America (GSA), to reveal his homosexuality and to urge his fellow scientists to accept homosexual students without bias and encourage them to enter the field of geoscience.

Wahrhaftig's long-time friend--the most important person in his life--was Allan Cox, one of the true giants of earth science in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1950 and 1951 Cox, as an under-graduate student in chemistry, worked for him as a field assistant. Wahrhaftig convinced him to pursue a career in the earth sciences, and steered him toward a Ph.D. at Berkeley.

Wahrhaftig loved to teach, but was a lousy lecturer. Even so, he was a tremendous inspiration to many students. Hidden in every lecture were profound observations on critical geological, geophysical, or geomorphic problems. He prepared meticulous lecture notes and gave copies to his classes; many of his students have saved those notes as mini-masterpieces of geological instruction.

Most of all he loved to teach in the field; in that realm he was a master. He was always teaching those around him, whether at the University, the USGS, or in the community--not only students but also colleagues, youngsters in community programs, and adults in Extension courses. (in the field he inspired two of the writers of this In Memoriam to pursue graduate work in geology, and to come to Berkeley for graduate studies).

He was exceptionally good on Ph.D. oral committees, demanding of candidates that they reason logically from their data, taking them, if necessary, step by step to a correct answer, whether it involved a phase diagram or some more subjective material. He had compassion as well as rigor; more than one candidate was rescued from panic or "freeze-up" by a patient, empathetic line of questioning from Wahrhaftig.

In his life Wahrhaftig acted out and experienced the history of this country in microcosm. In the 1940s he began his work exploring frontier areas of Alaska, with the USGS and applying geology to extraction of mineral resources. For a decade he spent summers mapping the geology of the north slope of the Alaska Range, at first on foot and with pack train, later, and very reluctantly, with helicopter and airplane.

In the 1960s, he took a leading role in orienting the application of geological science to environmental problems. His work touched many aspects of the influence of human activities on natural processes; his major effort was directed toward forest management practices. In 1970 his studies comparing erosional phenomena in cut-over and untouched forests had an impact on subsequent revision of the State Forest Practices Act. In 1971 he was selected as a member of the Council of the GSA and there was appointed Chair of a new committee on Environment and Public Policy. In 1975 he was appointed to the California Board of Forestry. For the first time the long-term perspective and interdisciplinary approaches of geomorphology were used in formulating forest practices legislation. His presence on the Board served as catalyst for legislation and practices that had influence far beyond the California border.

In 1975 Wahrhaftig's keen interest in environmental problems led him to make one exception to his career-long refusal to assume administrative responsibilities: he became Chair and Director of the Environmental Sciences major, an interdepartmental, undergraduate major in the College of Letters and Science. He held that position until he retired in 1982. In the mid-1990s that major, which owes much to his leadership, has come to be recognized as a paradigm for high quality in interdisciplinary education.

Also in the 1970s he became involved with social aspects of the earth sciences. In 1971 he was appointed the first Chair of the Geological Society of America's new committee on Minority Participation in the Earth Sciences. At the USGS he instigated a program for recruiting minorities. At Berkeley, also in the 1970s, he reversed his own earlier attitudes and worked diligently to encourage women to enter the earth sciences and to urge his colleagues to make women welcome in that predominantly male field.

In the 70s he also began a deep involvement in community programs. He worked with an extra-curricular education program in Hunter's Point area of San Francisco, and led groups of minority youth on geological field trips around the City and its environs--always, as a matter of principle, using public transportation for access. He took minority youngsters on field trips to the Sierra, and along on summer field camps for the Geology Department.

He became active in the community, bringing geology to bear on local planning and land use issues. For many years he was a member of the Technical Advisory Committee on Bolinas Lagoon, for the Marin County Recreation Department. He served on the Mayor's Twin Peaks [Park] Committee. He worked on study committees for the Golden Gate National Recreation area and the Bay Area Trail.

In all of these activities he characteristically did much more than was expected. He prepared written testimony on the geology of San Francisco for local commissions and ballot measures. At the same time he used land use issues to educate the public, and governmental agencies and officials about their geologic environment and its significance. He led numerous field trips to points of regional geologic importance and devoted a great deal of time and energy to preparing detailed field guides for participants. He was a master at preparing such materials in non-technical language without sacrificing geologic information for audiences of interested laymen.

He was one of a small cadre of Bay Area geologists who brought the plate-tectonic concept, as it is expressed in the rocks of the area, to the layman. Most geologists wrote for other scientists. Wahrhaftig was concerned that the interested public have access to detailed, accurate (and extraordinarily interesting) information.

He wrote a host of field trip guides in language that is both accessible to intelligent laymen and respectable for scientists. Some of these field guides were published; the most popular one, published (and reprinted) by the American Geophysical Union, titled "A Streetcar to Subduction," is a guide to outcrops in the San Francisco Area, using, of course, public transportation. Other popular published field guides include "A Walker's Guide to the Geology of San Francisco" and "The Hayward Fault in Hayward and Fremont, via BART."

Wahrhaftig's contributions to the applications of geological science and to public education were rooted in very substantial contributions to science itself. His research was characterized by meticulous field observations, supported by scholarly understanding of basic chemistry, physics, and ecology, applied to critical testing of widely applicable hypotheses and models. A 1959 article on "Rock Glaciers in the Alaska Range," co-authored with Allan Cox, inspired a world-wide surge in research on rock glaciers. The Geological Society of America awarded him its Kirk Bryan Award for his 1965 paper on "Stepped topography of the southern Sierra Nevada." That paper effectively challenged the universal applicability of dynamic equilibrium and raised the issue of thresholds several year before that topic was popularized by others. His papers on physiographic subdivisions of Alaska and topographic development of the California Coast Ranges also triggered much additional research. A host of colleagues and students credit Wahrhaftig with critical comments and suggestions that advanced their own research.

In 1989 the Geological Society of America awarded him its Distinguished Career Award. The citationist who presented that award observed that, if science awarded points for teamwork, as basketball and hockey do, "Clyde would be among the all-time `assist' leaders and a sure shot for the Hall of Fame."

He made significant contributions not only to basic earth science but also to its applications. In addition to his previously mentioned works on environmental problems, his published works on the coal resources, Quaternary history, and landslides of the Alaska Range have stood the test of time and are still valuable tools for resource development and mitigating landslide problems along the Alaska Railroad.

Wahrhaftig's love for science and its uses was matched by his love for the arts. He loved the music of classical composers up through Brahms. Mozart was far and away his favorite. In the field he played Mozart on a recorder. At home he played Mozart pieces on the piano for friends, hours at a time, as long as they would listen. At geology summer field camp, in the White Mountains, in the evenings he would get someone to drive him down to Deep Springs School, where he played the piano for hours on end.

He also had a talent for sketching. His sketches illustrate many of his informally published works. In 1993 the USGS in Menlo Park exhibited selected pen and ink sketches from his numerous sketchbooks.

While science was his own special talent, he especially respected artistic genius. He remarked again and again that the great discoveries (or inventions) of science do not depend on the special genius of any one person, whereas, without Mozart, none of that marvelous music would exist.

For all of his formidable accomplishments, Wahrhaftig eschewed pretense of any kind. He avoided formal dress as much as possible. If forced to don coat and tie, he would continue to wear his "tennies", much to everyone's amusement. He was modest to a fault.

He worked diligently until the end. Two special labors of love, however, remained unfinished at his death. In 1955 he began mapping the Tower Peak Quadrangle in the northeast corner of Yosemite Park. For two weeks each summer thereafter, until his heart denied him, he continued that mapping as a "busman's holiday." Manuscripts of that map are widely regarded as a masterpiece of the field geologist's craft, as the best mapped quadrangle of the Sierra, perhaps of any place in the country. Similarly he began in the mid-'50s to write a paper on the "Nenana Gravels" as a record of late Cenozoic orogeny in the Alaska Range. He worked, reworked, and refined that manuscript episodically until his death. The manuscript is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Colleagues who have seen pieces of those works have eagerly awaited their publication. He promised to do so, but never brought (probably did not want to) either task to a conclusion--to the final pinnacle of perfection that he demanded of himself for publication. Understanding the geology of the Alaska Range and the Sierra was not, for Wahrhaftig an instrumental effort, but rather, a labor of love. He was a denizen of the hills he loved, not the master or a conqueror of peaks.

Like his labors on Tower Peak Quadrangle and on the Nenana Gravels paper, Wahrhaftig's love for his friends and students, for the mountains and science, for the Survey and the University, his care for social justice and the environment, for music, art and literature--all of these loves were deep, humble, and enduring. His caring touched the lives of many colleagues, students, friends and relatives, by whom he is sorely missed as a wise, compassionate, and cherished friend.

To preserve his memory, interested individuals may direct contributions to graduate student fellowships in the UC Berkeley Earth & Planetary Science Department. Checks should be made out to "The Regents of the University of California" and addressed to Judith Coyote, Department of Earth and Planetary Science, 307 McCone Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA, 94720-4767.

In Memoriam by Mark Christensen, Garniss Curtis, and Doris Sloan