Earth and Planetary Science
EPS Geophysics

Perry Byerly

Perry Byerly (1897 - 1978)

The passing of Perry Byerly on September 26, 1978 in Oakland, was the end of a pioneering era in seismology at Berkeley. For 38 years he had supervised the University's network of seismographic stations, keeping track of earthquakes in central and northern California. He was born in Clarinda, Iowa, on May 28, 1897, the only child of Perry Byerly and Pauline Watson Byerly. All his great-grandparents as well as his grandparents and parents were born in the United States, moving west with the frontier. Perry first attended the University of Redlands and the University of Southern California, as a mathematics major. At the end of his junior year, Byerly was told by his professor that he should transfer to a university offering more mathematics, so in the Fall of 1920, he entered the University of California at Berkeley. He received his A.B. in 1921, M.A. in 1922 and Ph.D. in 1924, all in physics. He then spent a year as instructor at the University of Nevada.

The University had established in 1887, at Berkeley and at Mount Hamilton, the first seismographic stations in the Western Hemisphere on a permanent basis. These stations had been in the charge of the Astronomy Department, Civil Engineering, and the Geology Department. However, in 1925, Professor Andrew C. Lawson, then Chairman of Geology, asked Byerly to join the Department and make the siesmographic stations his life work.

As a professor of seismology with a responsibility to develop a graduate research program, he was, of course, breaking new ground. The award of one of the new Guggenheim Fellowships in 1928 to 1929 opportunely broadened his horizons and he went to Cambridge University, England, where he began a lifetime friendship with Sir Harold Jeffreys. At Cambridge his first wife, Ardis (nee Gehring) died of Hodgkin's disease, then incurable.

Back at Berkeley, Byerly's relations with Professor Lawson were lively but ultimately close. Byerly was Lawson's last appointment to the Department staff before he became Emeritus, but Lawson remained active for almost another twenty years. Later in Byerly's career, the mix of geologists and geophysicists in the Department of Geological Sciences became normal and, in due course, Byerly had a turn (1949-1954) as chairman of the Department. This provided an opportunity to request his own appointment as Director of the Seismographic Stations (September 21, 1950).

He became Secretary of the Seismological Society of America in 1931, taking over from Professor S. T. Townley of Stanford. He retained this influential post until 1956, but into the late sixties he was often asked to give advice on the welfare of the Society. After his research achievements of the 1930s, Byerly became increasingly widely known. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also served on many National Research Council and government panels, being chairman of the Panel on Seismology and Gravity for the International Geophysical Year (1957-58). He was a fellow and, for a term, president of the Section of Seismology of the American Geophysical Union. He was Condon lecturer in Oregon in 1952 (Byerly, 1952). He was awarded a second Guggenheim fellowship in 1952 to 1953 and was Smith-Mundt lecturer at the University of Mexico in 1954, and had a Fulbright scholarship that took him back to Cambridge, England in 1960 to 1961.

At the University of California, he was at times a member of various Senate committees -- Courses of Instruction, Graduate Council, Memorial Resolutions -- but he did not regard himself as a good committee man, being too impatient. (One proud accomplishment was on the Committee on Public Ceremonies, where he persuaded the administration to lend caps and gowns to the faculty without charge on days of public ceremonies.) He served as Assistant Dean of the College of Letters and Science for a few years. Socially, he partook in a number of University clubs, including the Faculty Club, of which he was voted an Honorary Member in 1964.

His contributions at Berkeley were marked by the naming of the seismographic station Strawberry Canyon as the Byerly Station, and the award of the Honorary LL.D. degree in 1966.

A substantial part of Byerly's seismological work, particularly after his becoming Emeritus in 1965, involved consultations on geophysical and seismological questions. He was consultant also for the U.S. Air Corps and in the sixties for the Atomic Energy Commission on seismic safety considerations for the underground nuclear testing in Nevada and the Aleutians. He took a "conservative" position regarding these nuclear tests and held that the national interest would be harmed if those obstructing them were successful.

In contrast to some of his seismological contemporaries who concentrated on research, Byerly taught a large number of graduate and undergraduate students over the years, not only seismology majors but also geology and engineering students. He supervised many master's and twenty-one doctoral theses. His distinctive pedagogical method combined elements of irony and paradox with anecdotes so that more was left behind than mere technical knowledge. This large group of students constitutes at the present time an important professional base in American seismology and earthquake engineering. During World War II, to assist the Physics Department from which many of the faculty had left for war work elsewhere, Byerly taught Physics 105A-B, the upper division course in analytic mechanics. He was as well qualified as many of the physics faculty to teach such a course. The schedule was one of year-round operation, and the number of students was large because of service groups; but he enjoyed it and taught from 1942 through 1945.

In 1932, Perry Byerly had married Elsie Gillmor and there were two sons. Divorce occurred in 1940. In 1941, he married Lillian Nuckolls, to whom he was devoted.

Byerly was a man of wide knowledge and much practical wisdom. He played a germinal role in the growth of seismology in the United States during its formative years as a separate discipline. His influence will live on through his students and the Seismological Society of America, which he nurtured for some forty years. Those who knew Perry Byerly well were much influenced by him. In casual encounters his kindliness and humor were sometimes hidden by a crusty manner of speaking. In fact, he had an abiding love of words, exemplified in his wide reading and knowledge of poetry. His anecdotal abilities were well known, both at the University and in the geophysics community and many Byerly stories and wise sayings have circulated widely.

Lillian and three sons, Perry Edward, David, and Donald survive him.

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 written by Bruce A. Bolt, Carl Helmholz, Don Tocher, and Howel Williams