In Memoriam: Kenneth O. Emery


The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution announces with great sorrow the death April 12, 1998 of Scientist Emeritus Kenneth O. Emery in Milton, MA, following a brief illness. He was 83.

K.O., as he preferred to be called, was born June 6, 1914 in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Canada. He grew up in Texas, studied engineering at North Texas Agricultural College in Arlington and geology at the University of Illinois, where he received a B.S. degree in 1935. His academic and research life started at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where his teacher and mentor was Francis P. Shepard, considered by many the "father" of marine geology. K.O. received a M.S. degree in geology in 1939 and moved to La Jolla, CA, where he was a guest at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for two years while pursuing his doctoral research on the California continental margins. He received his Ph.d. in geology from the University of Illinois in 1941, and worked in the Division of War Research at the University of California, San Diego from 1943 to 1945, producing maps of sediment types that were important for acoustic submarine warfare but also proved valuable to later studies by K.O. and others of continental margins. After the war K.O. moved to Los Angeles, where he taught geology for 16 years as an assistant professor and later professor at the University of Southern California (USC) and did research in the Gulf of California. Between 1946 and 1960 he also worked, mostly part-time, for the U.S. Geological Survey, and served as Oceanographer at the Navy Ordnance Test Center in Pasadena from 1960 to 1962.

In 1962 K.O.'s research interests brought him to Woods Hole and to WHOI, where his studies included much of the rest of the world. At WHOI, he recruited a group of young geologists who became the core of a marine geology group in what was then a department of geophysics. He was named a Senior Scientist in 1963, was the Henry Bryant Bigelow Oceanographer from 1975 to 1979, and was named a Scientist Emeritus in 1979. In 1968 he became the first Dean of the new Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/ Massachusetts Institute of Technology Joint Graduate Program.

As a scientist, K.O. was plain spoken, energetic, and prompt. He was disciplined in planning his work, carrying it out, and reporting the results. K.O. believed synthesis to be the most important duty of a scientist. This required broad knowledge, which he felt geology provided, and was best accomplished in a book, of which he wrote 15. "Geology of the Atlantic Ocean," written with department colleague Elazar Uchupi, resulted in part from a comprehensive field program on the continental margins of the Atlantic, the west side of which was begun in 1968 and the east side completed in 1973, using gravity, magnetics, and suspended particle analysis but mostly using echo sounding and low frequency seismic profiling. For the final stages, WHOI's Research Vessel Atlantis II was equipped with a seagoing computer lab, previously not seen on academic ships. The understanding of geologic processes that he brought to structures he observed on the continental margins, including ridges and traps, had great interest to petroleum geologists. Studies in the East and South China Seas had previously indicated that there might be oil reserves there based on such structures. K.O. felt that knowledge of oil and gas was never a bad thing and that shorter delivery routes promised reduced degradation of the ocean environment from oil spills, a position that sometimes brought him into dispute with environmentalists.

In 1946, K.O. was asked by the U.S. Geological Survey to participate in a study of Bikini Atoll before atomic bomb tests were conducted there. The studies confirmed the sinking seamount hypothesis of Charles Darwin as an explanation of atolls. Many years later, interest in global warming and the rise in sea level, augmented by the understanding of seafloor subsidence away from spreading centers, caused him to question the stability of the reference level of tide gauges used in these data sets. Tide gauges are generally sited on islands that themselves are moving, or are on the edge of continents that are rebounding from the recent departure of glacial overburden or are being tilted by subduction of an oceanic plate. These syntheses from his observations were reported in the 1991 book "Sea Levels, Land Levels, and Tide Gauges" with department colleague David G. Aubrey. A visit to the Dead Sea in 1959 on a Guggenheim Fellowship resulted in a study of circulation of water in the southern basin but also in the salt formations that formed in this graben. Again, years later, the geological processes evinced by these observations were presented in a book entitled, "The Destruction of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Jericho," written with his former student and colleague, David Neev. Little failed to interest K.O., and his mind naturally turned to obtaining information about the subject, to analyzing the evidence afresh, to doing studies of his own, and to reaching a new synthesis after reporting his observations. Such subjects as English and French gun flints from the chalk on the two sides of the English Channel, or coins discovered in foreign ports that reflected marine themes, captured his interest and resulted in monographs or books. His desire to extend what we know from earth geology led to a book on the planets and moons of the solar system based on satellite observations, "The Morphology of the Rocky Members of the Solar System," with Elazar Uchupi.

K.O. loved to engage younger colleagues in discussion to test out his ideas in addition to stimulating their thought. He never hesitated to open such discussions, of great benefit to the geologists of occupied Japan when he visited there just after the war. His influence had impact on the later development of Japanese marine geology. Wherever he went, he was a mentor and left his influence. He was open to new ideas and sought out new techniques; by challenging both ideas and techniques, he kept the ones that worked. The new idea had to be useful and the technique had to reveal new information. In fact, he appreciated geophysics for what it told him as a geologist; "Geophysics is just another hammer," he was fond of saying.

His many discoveries and syntheses were reported in about 290 publications and 15 books, and he was a member of many professional organizations. His contributions were recognized with many awards and honors, among them Academician, the China Academy of Taiwan in 1968; the Shepard Prize for Marine Geology in 1969; Outstanding Alumnus Award from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1969; election to both the National Academy of Sciences and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971; the Prince Albert 1er de Monaco Medal from France in 1971; the Compass Distinguished Achievement Award from the Marine Technology Society in 1974; the AAAS-Rosensteil Award in Oceanographic Science in 1975; the Illini Achievement Award from the University of Illinois in 1977; election to the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in 1977; the Maurice Ewing Award from the American Geophysical Union in 1985; the Twenhofel Medal from the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists in 1989; a Louis G. Murray Visiting Fellowship, DeBeers, South Africa, in 1989; a Doctor of Science degree from the University of Southern California in 1990; and the Alumni Achievement Award from the University of Illinois, Department of Geology, in 1996.

K.O. lived for many years at the head of Oyster Pond in Falmouth, MA. In addition to maintaining a productive orchard and apiary there, he surveyed Oyster Pond by rowboat, producing a much sought after 1969 book, "A Coastal Pond Studied by Oceanographic Methods," which resulted when someone asked him how deep the pond was and he didn't know. During the passage of Hurricane Gloria in 1985, K.O. was in his yard measuring temperature, wind force and direction, and precipitation, and was thus able to document the snuffing out of the hurricane at its peak by entrainment of cold air from a front to the west. In retirement, his agricultural pursuits were alternated with writing, a balance both healthy and productive. After several hours at his desk, a few hours pruning or harvesting were enough to set him up for more hours at the drafting table or word processor. Even many years after retirement, K.O. continued to spend several hours each day at his office at WHOI, reading and conferring with colleagues. His enthusiasm for ideas, desire to bring order to chaos, his friendliness to students and collegiality with his peers continued unabated until his death. In his last months he worked to recruit new members to the National Academy of Sciences and to encourage scientists to become broader in their interests and to write more books.

He is survived by two daughters, Barbara K. Wish of Randolph, MA, and Charlet E. Shave of North Falmouth, MA; a granddaughter, Rebecca A. Shave of Amherst, MA; and by two brothers, Almon C. Emery of Memphis, TN, and Harold B. Emery of Arvada, CO and Norman, OK. His wife of 42 years, Caroline (Kay) Alexander Emery of Lockport, IL, died in 1983.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, April 25, at 2:30 p.m. at the John Wesley United Methodist Church, 270 Gifford Street, Falmouth, MA. Burial will be private. A scholarship fund, the K.O. Emery Scholarship in Marine Geology, has been established in his memory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In lieu of flowers, his family has requested that contributions in his memory be made to the K.O. Emery Scholarship Fund, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Fenno House MS#40, Woods Hole, MA 02543.


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