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In Memoriam: Paul Witherspoon

Source:  Dan Hawkes

Witherspoon_memESD mourns the passing of Paul Witherspoon (1919–2012), the division’s first leader, this past Friday, February 10, after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. As ESD Director Don DePaolo noted, upon hearing of Paul’s death, “Paul was the founding Director of the Earth Sciences Division from 1977 to 1982, and was instrumental in defining the initial roles of Earth Sciences in DOE and at LBNL.  He remained closely involved with the Division for many years until very recently, and was always a strong supporter of our activities and an invaluable resource for many of us.”

Paul was an energetic participant in ESD affairs well into his 80’s, and his good cheer, active intelligence, and wealth of experience were always appreciated by his friends and colleagues. For more on Paul's research, life, and the history of ESD, we’ve provided a few links from the ESD website, which includes an engaging narrative provided by Paul himself, on his own many-faceted life, written for the ESD 30-year anniversary celebration in 2007.

“I encourage you to visit it, to enrich your appreciation of our history and as a reminder of the debt we all owe to Paul.” – Don DePaolo

Paul's Memorial Service will be held May 3, 2012. More details »

We’ve opened up the commenting feature below so that those people whose lives Paul’s has touched throughout the world can express their condolences.


The first time I met Prof. Witherspoon was during the 2nd UN Symposium on the Development and Use of Geothermal Resources, held in San Francisco in May 1975. A few months later, I welcomed him in Pisa on the occasion of an Italy-U.S. geothermal workshop that had been organized by ENEL (the Italian National Utility) and ERDA (now DOE) to discuss R&D problems of common interest. At that time, Italy and the U.S. were two of the top five countries that used geothermal energy to generate electricity.

As a follow-up to the Pisa workshop, ENEL and ERDA signed an R&D geothermal cooperation agreement in 1976, and Prof. Witherspoon and I were appointed as the principal investigators for earth sciences-related topics. As a result, from 1976 to 1984, Paul travelled a number of times to Italy, as I did to Washington D.C. and California. The main purpose of these trips was to review ongoing activities and to plan new projects. Actually, because of our differences in age and academic prestige, the true principal investigator was Paul; I felt like a kind of assistant of him, carrying out the tasks assigned to us. In this position, it was a privilege for me to work with Paul and learn so much from him.

After the cooperation agreement ended, I met Paul several times during international geothermal congresses and meetings held around the world. Thus, in addition to continuing the ties we established during our professional contacts, Paul and I had the opportunity on numerous occasions to get to know each other personally, dine out together (sometimes with our wives—this is how I also met Elizabeth, Paul’s wife), and to exchange information about nontechnical matters. In this way, I was able to appreciate Paul’s vast knowledge, quick wit, and deep human feelings, always expressed with an open, friendly smile. All the above were the basis of our close friendship, which we maintained even after his retirement some 20 years ago.

I was very sad to hear that Paul had passed away. My deep condolences to Elizabeth, and to Claire and Kathy, his daughters. May Paul rest in God’s peace now, with the love of all those who had the privilege of knowing him, including me.

Raffaele Cataldi
Honorary President of UGI
(the Italian Geothermal Union)

I was interviewed by Paul Witherspoon for a possible job in the Earth Sciences Division in October 1977, a few months after the division had been founded, and I consider this encounter one of my luckiest days. At the time, the activities of ESD were focused almost exclusively on geothermal energy, which was a "hot" topic in the aftermath of the OPEC oil embargo. Paul hired me, and I quickly came to admire his unique style: he was very engaged and engaging with everybody and everything, he stimulated people to think big, yet he was always keen on details and specifics, and he enjoyed a good horse race with competing scientific groups. Paul had a patrician bearing but without any condescension, he had a deep curiosity about people and things, and an uncanny ability that bordered on magic to bring out the best in the people he was working with. He presided over an operation that included people from all corners of the world, with different backgrounds in science and engineering, and he attracted a constant stream of visitors from faraway places, such as Italy, New Zealand and Iceland, that could teach us something about geothermal energy. Paul and the division he founded thrived on diversity, long before this topic appeared on the radar screen of the Human Resources people. It was truly a unique pleasure and privilege to have been part of Paul's team.

Paul was a giant (figuratively and literally) among men. I had the pleasure of working with Paul in ESD for 7 years and some of my best memories of that time include him. Paul was a mischievous soul with a perpetual twinkle in his eye. He never stopped learning and being amazed by our natural world. I will miss him tremendously.

I consider myself an ESD 'youngling', since I just joined the division four years ago. I only know Paul by his illustrious resume and a lot of great things that I hear about him. It wasn't before too long that I secretly added another feather in Paul's cap during my rare encounter with him---a polyglot.

It was a very pleasant and memorable experience for me. He spoke to me in different languages, well at least three. This didn't come out of nowhere. He had this genuine interest in people and asked what interests them---in this case, me. The conversation was light, unrushed, informative. That rare encounter with Paul, an ESD royalty, turned out to be one of the best conversations I ever had in ESD!

My first project with Paul was on the 2nd Worldwide Review ( He coordinated efforts in assessing programs and progress of addressing geological problems/challenges in radioactive waste from many different countries. Paul would often speak to the international attendees in their home language. Paul was widely respected by so many. He was an amazing individual with a strong mind and when he would come to the Lab, he would often tell me when he saw me to "Never grow old." Thank you for all your support in my career and education.

During his long career, Paul was a professor and mentor to a multitude of people; I was lucky to be one of them. In September 1987, many of his students, current (at that time) and former, gathered in Berkeley to participate in a conference organized in his honor (see photo).

Paul was also a friend and inspiration to many of his colleagues at UC Berkeley and LBNL. Even after his retirement (from LBNL in 1982 and UC Berkeley in 1989), Paul continued contributing to different earth-science-related fields, like nuclear waste geologic storage, geothermal energy and hydrogeology. I will utterly miss his wisdom, enthusiasm, good nature, and friendship.

Of course, Paul’s legacy at LBNL is as a “leader.” But what I will always remember most about Paul Witherspoon are three things: (a) his strong scientific knowledge and effectiveness at explaining what he knew; (b) his pride at being able to say at least a few words in every language he ever encountered; and (c) his invariably cheerful, friendly, unassuming dealings with me. On this last point -- he was almost my father’s age, but you would never know it. He dealt with me, as I know he dealt with everyone else in his professional sphere, as if we were peers in every way, both professional and personal. And when we disagreed professionally, as came up from time to time on some point of view or interpretation, it was always with the utmost respect. I once chaired a National Academy committee on which he served. He was the giant in the room, but there was never a hint of it in anything he said or did. The adjective that described Paul in those contexts was “unassuming.” That his ideas won over everyone else’s thinking was due to what he said and how he said it, not due to his intrinsic stature, great as it was. I never expect to encounter another like him! Bob Budnitz

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