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WHOI Presents Its Highest Honor to Physicist William Jenkins

January 15, 1997

The twelfth Henry Bryant Bigelow Award in Oceanography, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) highest honor, was presented January 31 to a member of the Institution’s own scientific staff. Senior Scientist William J. Jenkins of the Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department, a physicist, was honored for his “outstanding contributions to the development of the tritium-helium dating technique and its application to problems in ocean physics, biology and geochemistry, as well as his exceptional character and selfless dedication to the advance of science at WHOI.”

The Bigelow Award is presented “to those who make significant inquiries into the phenomena of the sea.” The award was established in 1960 by the Institution’s Board of Trustees in honor of the first Director, biologist Henry Bryant Bigelow, who was also the first recipient. Bigelow served as WHOI Director from 1930 to 1940, as President of the Corporation from 1940 to 1950, and Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1950 to 1960. The award, a medal and cash prize, is given to individuals in any field of oceanography without limitation as to age or nationality and is presented for an outstanding contribution to oceanography rather than a cumulative record of achievement. Nominations for the award were received from prominent scientists around the world.

Jenkins, a resident of Falmouth, joined the Institution’s staff as an assistant scientist in 1974 shortly after graduation from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, where he received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics. His doctoral thesis was entitled “Helium Isotope and Rare Gas Oceanology.” Jenkins was promoted to an associate scientist at WHOI in 1978 and to a senior scientist in 1984.

While a graduate student at McMaster University, Jenkins developed with Dr. Brian Clarke techniques for mass spectrometric measurement of helium isotopes in seawater. Since that time, he has applied these techniques to a wide variety of geochemical problems, including ocean mixing studies and global climate change. He has pioneered the concept of dating oceanic water masses based on the concentration of the hydrogen isotope tritium, with a half-life of 12.5 years, and its decay product, Helium-3, a stable isotope. By measuring the relative concentration of these species, it is possible to determine the time that has elapsed since the ocean water masses were in contact with the atmosphere. Because of such measurements, made on water samples taken periodically at several depths over large areas of the global seas, physical oceanographers now have a much better understanding of oceanic circulation and mixing processes.

“Bill Jenkins’s contribution of the development of the tritium-helium 3 dating method and its application to oceanography alone would be worthy of this award, if the criteria were restricted to a single contribution,” the award committee wrote. “However, his research is remarkable because it has had major impacts on many different fields, including physical oceanography, biological oceanography and geochemistry. Bill Jenkins is one of those rare people who make superb measurements and can also place the data into sound, quantitative models, which has allowed him to straddle these diverse fields in a unique way. There are very few scientists who have achieved as much impact and recognition among so many different scientific communities.”

Jenkins received the University of MiamiÕs Rosenstiel Award in Oceanographic Science in 1983 for his contributions to the measurement of time scales of ocean processes and for the insights he has provided to oceanic circulation and seafloor formation. He is a member of the American Geophysical Union, which elected him a Fellow in 1991, and serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Marine Research. In 1987 he was selected as the first recipient of WHOI’s W. Van Alan Clark Chair for Excellence in Oceanography, named for a long-time Institution benefactor and supporter W. Van Alan Clark. He held the rotating chair until 1992.

Previous recipients of the Bigelow Award include British Oceanographer John Swallow (1962), Geologist and Seafloor Cartographer Bruce Heezen (1964), Physical Oceanographer and former WHOI Director Columbus Iselin (1966), Professor Frederick Vine (1970) ,WHOI Physical Oceanographer Henry Stommel (1974), Wolfgang Berger of the University of California at San Diego (1979), WHOI Microbiologist Holger Jannasch (1980), Geologist Arnold Gordon of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University (1984), Physical Oceanographer Hans Rossby of the University of Rhode Island and Falmouth businessman and former WHOI engineer Douglas Webb (1988). The award was last presented in November 1992 to Biologists Alice Alldredge of the University of California at Santa Barbara and Mary Wilcox Silver, an Adjunct Senior Scientist at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California

For additional information, contact:
Shelley Lauzon, Senior News Officer
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, 0254
FAX: 508-457-2180