Albert Francis Birch


Photo of Albert Francis Birch
A founder of the science of solid earth geophysics, Albert Birch was born on August 22, 1903, in Washington, D.C. After attending public schools there and graduating from Western High School in 1920, Birch entered Harvard and earned an S.B. degree in Electrical Engineering magna cum laude in 1924. From 1924 to 1926 Birch worked in the Engineering Department of the New York Telephone Company, and then, thanks to an American Field Service Fellowship, he traveled to Strasbourg, France to work at the Université de Strasbourg’s Institut de Physique, where he studied the magnetism of metals under Pierre Weiss. In 1928 Birch returned to Harvard to earn his A.M. (1929) and Ph.D. (1932) degrees in Physics. Working under Percy W. Bridgman, who had developed experimental techniques to study the properties of materials under high pressures, he studied the properties of mercury. Reginald A. Daly, then the Sturgis Hooper Professor, was interested in applying these techniques to the study of geologically important materials because they might simulate the conditions of the Earth's interior. In 1930 Bridgman, Daly, and several other professors had formed an interdepartmental program to coordinate their efforts. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences formally established this as the Committee on Geophysical Research in 1931. After finishing his thesis in 1932, Birch was appointed Research Associate in Geophysics.
During the 1930s, Birch developed experimental techniques and theoretical models to compare the experimentally determined properties of known materials with the seismologically and gravitationally revealed properties of the unknown materials of the Earth's interior in order to draw conclusions about its structure and composition. In 1937 he was promoted to Assistant Professor of Geophysics. When the United States entered World War II, Birch took a leave of absence from Harvard and was commissioned as a Naval Reserve Officer. He served as a staff member of the Radiation Laboratory at M.I.T., working with the Bureau of Ships on the development of proximity fuses. He then worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, where he headed the engineering and development of the Hiroshima bomb. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for this service.
In 1945 Birch returned to Harvard to resume his academic work. He was promoted to Professor in 1946, and, in 1949, was appointed to the Sturgis Hooper Professorship. He chaired the Committee on Experimental Geology and Geophysics, as it had been renamed, from 1949 to 1965 and chaired the Department of Geological Sciences during the creation of the Hoffman Laboratory of Experimental Geology, which opened in 1963.
Birch published over 100 papers, from laboratory reports on the properties of materials at high pressures and temperatures and field studies of heat flow to theoretical analyses of the composition of the Earth's interior. He served as President of the Geological Society of America in 1964 and, in addition to the Vetlesen Prize, was honored with the Society's Day and Penrose Medals, the Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union, the National Medal of Science, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Great Britain, and the Bridgman Medal of the International Association for the Advancement of High Pressure Science and Technology. He was elected to numerous scientific societies and was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Chicago and Harvard. Birch assumed emeritus status in 1974 but continued his research and published papers on the properties of crystals into the 1980s. He died on January 30, 1992, at his home in Cambridge.