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Biography

Maurice "Doc" Ewing
(1906-1974)

The photo courtesy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

William Maurice Ewing was born in Lockney, Texas, on May 12, 1906, the eldest surviving child of a large family that led a happy but hardscrabble existence on a farm in the Texas panhandle.

At sixteen, he won a scholarship to Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston, where he received his entire academic training—a B.A. with honors in mathematics and physics (1926) and an M.A. (1927) and Ph.D. (1931) in physics. To support himself, he tutored classmates and worked in an all-night drugstore, somehow finding time to play first trombone in the marching band throughout graduate school. During summers, he worked in grain elevators and for oil prospecting companies. His lifelong habit of working all day, every day, was already entrenched.

In 1930, he became an instructor of physics at Lehigh University, zealous to do research. In those Depression-era days before government-sponsored research, he improvised physics experiments. He used magnetic measurements to look for buried apparatus. When local quarries were blasting, he recorded the seismic waves they generated. Ewing’s summer jobs had made him familiar with emerging techniques employed by oil companies to reveal the thickness, composition, and contours of buried rock strata (and the oil hidden within them) by studying seismic waves traveling through and reflecting off rock layers.

Wrangling some dynamite of his own, Ewing concocted further rudimentary experiments. He spent weekends setting off explosions in the wilds of New Jersey, using sound energy to explore subsurface geology. He analyzed seismic waves traveling across “a solid interface between a gas and liquid”—the frozen surface of a nearby lake.

Ewing’s modest but singular research attracted the attention of two geologists, Professor Richard Field of Princeton and Major William Bowie of the U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey. One snowy November day in 1934, they showed up at Lehigh to ask Ewing whether the seismic measurements he was pioneering on land could be adapted to investigate the geology of a completely unknown landscape—the seafloor.

Bowie and Field encouraged Ewing to seek a grant from the Geological Society of America (GSA). “If they had asked me to put seismic equipment on the moon instead of the bottom of the ocean I’d have agreed, I was so desperate for a chance to do research,” Ewing told his biographer, William Wertenbaker, in his book The Floor of the Sea.

In fact, decades later Ewing and Columbia colleagues did put such equipment on the moon aboard Apollo flights. But in 1936, with a $2,000 grant from the GSA, Ewing and a handful of students—none of them geologists—began to work on experiments that no one had ever imagined, let alone performed. As in New Jersey, they would use sound energy—explosions—to generate seismic waves to probe the seafloor.

In September 1940, Ewing took a leave of absence from Lehigh University and moved his research group to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. In 1944, he accepted an appointment at Columbia University, where he served as associate professor (1944-1947), professor (1947-1959), and finally, Higgins Professor of Geology (1959-1972).

Ewing wrote or cowrote over 300 scientific papers, and trained more than 200 graduate students. He developed seafloor seismic equipment, made the first seismic refraction measurements in the open sea, measured sedimentary velocities in the deep ocean, made pendulum gravity measurements at sea, and made theoretical studies of underwater sound transmission, predicting and then discovering the SOFAR channel for long-range sound transmission in the oceans.

Ewing's research successes convinced the Columbia University trustees to establish a Geological Observatory at the former estate of Thomas W. Lamont in Palisades, New York, in 1949. During Ewing’s 25 years as director, Lamont-Doherty oceanographers developed techniques for seagoing studies, built equipment for continuous echo sounding, precision depth recording, seismic reflection and refraction measurements, ocean bottom seismographs, piston coring of seafloor sediment, and gravity and magnetic measurements of the ocean floor. He established the World-Wide Standardized Seismograph Network (with Frank Press), studied glacial-interglacial oscillations and the occurrence of ice ages (with William Donn), and wrote the classic book Elastic Waves in Layered Media (with Frank Press and Wenceslas Jardetzky). Perhaps more than any other individual, Ewing laid the foundation for the revolutionary concept known as plate tectonics.

Ewing was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1948), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1951), and the American Philosophical Society (1959). He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1938, 1953, and 1955. He was elected to the American Geophysical Union in 1931, named an AGU Fellow in 1962, served as President of AGU (1956-1959), and was awarded its William Bowie Medal (1957) and Walter H. Bucher Medal (1974). Ewing served as Councilor (1946-1948) and Vice-President (1953-1956) of the Geological Society of America, which awarded him the Arthur L. Day Medal (1949) and the Penrose Medal (1974, posthumously). He was Vice-President (1952-1955) and President (1955-1957) of the Seismological Society of America. He was an Honorary Member of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (1957), the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (1968), and the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists (1973).

Ewing was also awarded the Distinguished Public Service Award of the U.S. Navy (1955), the Sidney Powers Memorial Medal of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (1968), the Robert Earl McConnell Award of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers (1973), the Agassiz Medal (1955) and the John J. Carty Medal (1963) of the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Medal of Science (1973). He was named a Foreign Member of the Geological Society of London (1964) and the Royal Society of London (1972) and was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (London) and the Vega Medal of the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography.

Doc Ewing suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage in Galveston, Texas, on April 28, 1974; and died there on May 4, 1974. Over 300 colleagues attended his burial service in Palisades, New York, on May 8, 1974.

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