Stanley Keith Runcorn

Portrait of Stanley Keith
Portrait of Stanley Keith
Runcorn. Courtesy of the
University of Alaska.
Photo by Lesa Hollen.


Stanley Keith Runcorn was born on November 19, 1922, in Southport, Lancashire, in the United Kingdom. He received his undergraduate degree in engineering at Cambridge University in 1942, and earned his doctorate at Manchester University, where he conducted research on the Earth’s magnetic field. This led to a strong interest in paleomagnetism, the study of the residual magnetism of rocks, which he pursued first at the Geophysics Department at Cambridge and later at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, where he was appointed chair of the Physics Department in 1956. Upon his retirement from Newcastle in 1988, Runcorn accepted the position of Sydney Chapman Professor in Physical Sciences at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, a position he held until his untimely death at the hands of a robber in San Diego on December 5, 1995.
Runcorn was highly regarded around the world as a geophysicist. Considered a scientific pioneer in plate tectonics, he was renowned as a central player in two of the major Earth science debates in the mid-twentieth century: the validity of the theory of continental drift and the origin of the Earth's magnetic field (he was the first to discover evidence of its periodic polar reversals). Runcorn also made substantial contributions to other fields of research, including convection in the Earth and Moon, the shape and magnetic fields of the Moon and planets, changes in the length of the day, polar wandering, and Earth currents.
He traveled widely, lecturing and attending conferences, and organized many international meetings at Newcastle, which under his guidance became an internationally known center of geophysics and planetary physics.
A Fellow of England's Royal Society since 1965, Runcorn received the John Adam Fleming Award of the American Geophysical Union in 1983, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1984 and, in 1987, the Wegener Medal of the European Geophysical Society. He also sat on a committee of scientists overseeing the experimental Biosphere II Space Habitat in Arizona from 1991 to 1993, and was a member of the Papal Academy of Science, Pope John Paul II's science advisory panel.