Earth and Planetary Science
EPS Geophysics

Howel Williams

Howel Williams (1898 - 1980)

Howel Williams, world-famous volcanologist and distinguished member of the University faculty for nearly fifty years, died in Berkeley on January 12, 1980, as the consequence of a stroke.

Williams was born of Welsh parents in Liverpool, England, on October 12, 1898. He studied at the University of Liverpool, receiving a B.A. in geography in 1923 and an M.A. in archeology in 1924. His first publications were in archeology and it was because of his field work in this area that he changed to geology. After a few years of study at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London, he came to Berkeley in the summer of 1926 on a three-year appointment as a Commonwealth Fund fellow.

In California, Williams immediately took up field studies in areas of volcanic activity which were to be his dominating interest throughout his career. His report on "A recent volcanic eruption near Lassen Peak, California," the first of many to appear in the University of California Publications in the Geological Sciences, was issued May 19, 1928. Even before that he had finished his first major work in volcanology which was reported at the twenty-seventh annual meeting of the Cordilleran Section of the Geological Society of America, held in Berkeley in March, 1928. For this Williams received instant recognition and was awarded a prize, provided by Professor Lawson, for "Geology of the Marysville Buttes, California," for having contributed "the most satisfactory and the most important paper setting forth the results of his own research in geology." This appeared as a monograph published by the UC Press the following year. In 1928, he also received the degree of D.Sc., from the University of Liverpool.

In 1929, after three years in California and also studies in Tahiti, Williams returned to England, where he held a post at the Royal School of Mines in London for one year. He so impressed Professor G. D. Louderback, Dean of the College of Letters and Science and Chairman of the Department of Geological Sciences, that he was invited to join the department in 1930 as Associate Professor of Geology.

When Williams returned to the department it had only seven other members, six of whom were California Ph.D.s, and only one full professor. His arrival was a blessing, bringing fresh stimulus to a department that had been criticized for inbreeding. He took charge of instruction in microscopic petrography from the start and taught the basic course in this subject, a mainstay of the department, for thirty-six years. The laboratory work was based entirely on thin sections of rocks, and students were required to make sketches and colored drawings to record their observations. At the same time Williams participated in teaching the rigorous full-year field course required for all major students, which had been instituted by Lawson as an innovation a generation earlier. In volcanology he not only started a seminar but gained disciples among his younger colleagues. One of these, Charles Anderson (later to become chief geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey), turned from economic geology to volcanology and carried out a number of independent volcanological studies in northern California.

After definitive studies of the most notable California volcanoes, Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta, Williams first extended his work to Oregon. Through his great monograph on "The Geology of Crater Lake National Park," published by the Carnegie Institution, a translation of this into Spanish, and through a U.C. Press book on Crater Lake intended for the general public, he became known and appreciated in ever wider circles. To most, the recognition of the collapse or engulfment of the mountain peak of Crater Lake, and his subsequent survey of calderas and their formation throughout the world are his greatest works, but Williams' own greatest love was Sutter Buttes, the study of which began his career in California and ironically, ended it when he returned "to correct the mistakes I made there a half century ago." Most of Williams' publications were based on carefully detailed field work, and here he was a master with few, if any, peers. His ability to go into a new volcanic area and with miraculous swiftness identify the major units, lava flows, ash flows, volcanic domes, and establish their chronology accurately was a talent that awed and amazed those privileged to accompany him. His genius in this respect was recognized early in his career by the great British field geologist, Edward Greenly, who chose Williams to co-author a book on methods in geological surveying (1930). In contrast to Greenly, however, who always worked alone in the field to maintain his concentration, Williams enjoyed having field companions and delighted in both pointing out the salient features of the geology to his associates and keeping up a commentary on his developing geologic hypotheses. His detailed field maps, meticulously and artfully drafted and colored, would grow magically before his companions' eyes. Nothing escaped Williams' keen eyes in the field, including the maidenly blush on the cheeks of the farmer's daughter upon whose land he found himself.

During protracted field work in foreign lands, Howel steeped himself in the lore and culture of the countries, often singing and drinking with the local people and collecting their art. His main mission, however, was never far from his mind, and evenings were frequently spent in reconnaissance geology by car: his enthusiams for geologic discovery never flagged.

One observes in awe the tremendous area carefully studied by Williams during his career. His published geologic maps total over 10,000 square miles. Only some of the early giants of western reconnaissance geology, Powell, Gilbert and King, published more, but not nearly in the detail of Williams.

Williams was a master of the art of field sketching, formerly practiced by many naturalists. Many of his papers were illustrated with his meticulously done pen and ink drawings. Such drawings of the microscopic features of rocks of all types, done by Williams, were used exclusively in the very successful textbook, Petrography, by Williams, Turner, and Gilbert. Williams' publications were equally characterized by his lucid and elegant prose; he greatly relished reviewing student manuscripts, and his skill at reducing their length substantially while increasing the information they contained was valued by students until his death.

"Willie," as he was affectionately known, was an ideal field companion and a much sought-after participant in multidisciplinary programs. He was a founding member of the Associates in Tropical Biogeography. One of us remembers fondly the picture of Howel and paleontologist R. A. Stirton kneeling in the desert sand of Baja California, amiably assisting the beleaguered botanist of the biogeographers' expedition in preparation of plant specimens. Williams' accomplishments include numerous studies with current and former students in geology, as well as those with Robert Heizer (anthropology) on Mexican archaeology, particularly in tracing the sources of megaliths. Willie was especially noted for his relaxed civility and complete imperturbability in all situations and on all occasions.

During the period of his able chairmanship of the department, 1945-1949, the faculty was increased from seven to eleven members. More importantly, by the addition of Turner and Verhoogen to the faculty in 1946 and 1947, the transformation of the department had been initiated. Within a few years the department was represented in the National Academy of Sciences by four members, whereas previously the department had never had more than one member in the Academy.

He was married twice, both marriages ending in divorce. In his later years his stepdaughter, Tony Ray, and her son, Geoffrey, moved in with him and cared for him, becoming his true family and heirs. He is survived by his twin brother, David, in Britain, also a geologist of world renown.

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 A. Pabst, I. S. E. Carmichael, L. Constance, and G. H. Curtis.