In Memoriam: Herb Wright, 1917-2015

Herb had a very large impact on the Quaternary science, paleoecology, paleoclimate modeling, and glacial geology to name just a few. He influenced the careers of many young scientists both in the US and in Europe. Stories about his fieldwork are legendary and many of them were recounted at his 80th and 90th birthday celebrations that were held both at the Department and in Europe.

Herb referred to himself as having had a checkered career[i], beginning with his interest in” arid-region geomorphology to an interest in the global context and in the quest for lakes in exotic parts of the world”. He was motivated by the desire to understand the processes and events that produced the landforms such as the arid regions of New Mexico and Minnesota glacial geology. Since embracing the newly developed chronological tool of radiocarbon, he became interested in working with records that could be more easily placed in a chronological context. Lake sediments[ii] and fossil pollen contained within them that could be made to tell stories about the changing landscapes were added to his focus of studies. Herb established Pollen Laboratory in 1958 and the Limnological Research Station in 1959 (Limnological Research Center in 1962) to promote these studies. Archaeology, “interactions of human societies with the environments”, was another area of his interest. In his later years (1980s onward) he embraced environmental magnetism, diatoms, ostracodes, sediment geochemistry and stable isotopes as tools that can shed light on past climatic changes and environmental dynamics. He also was interested in nurturing early attempts at global climate modeling and was instrumental in establishing a data-model comparison program (COHMAP) in 1977[iii].

The Limnological Research Center has been a home to numerous students, post-doctoral associates and visitors (many from Europe) representing diverse academic disciplines, consistent with Herb’s wide-ranging interests. In addition to advising students and post-docs in Geology, Ecology and Botany, he also had students in Center for Ancient Studies (later Interdisciplinary Archaeology). He advised more than 80 Ph.D. and Masters students, 19 of them after his official retirement in 1988.

Herb was born in Malden, MA in 1917.  He received BA, MA and PhD (Kirk Bryan, advisor) from Harvard.  He earned his PhD in absentia in 1943 while serving as a bomber pilot during WWII. Herb’s first faculty appointment was at Brown University (then Brown College), and he came to the University of Minnesota in 1948. He spent the summer of 1946 in Lebanon, working as a geologist assisting two Jesuit archaeologists studying Paleolithic rock shelter at Ksar Akil. This experience led to his being invited by Robert Braidwood of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago to join the archaeological expeditions (1950s and 60s) to Kurdistan and Iran as project geologist. Braidwood had access to very early radiocarbon dating because Libby was at Chicago and thus Herb was introduced to this age determination method at its infancy. Sediment cores from Lakes Mirabad and Zeribar (both in Iran) were acquired in 1963 and 1970 and studied in the late 1960s and early 1970s (pollen and diatoms) and again in the 1990s (ostracodes and stable isotopes) by various students and post-docs. A partial list of areas he studied, in addition to numerous lakes in Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas includes St. Elias Mountains in the Yukon, Labrador, south-central Illinois (Pittsburg Basin), lakes and bogs in Ireland, Glacier Bay, Alaska, Sweden, Georgian Caucuses and Siberian Altai, and Bulgaria.

Herb received many honors and awards including honorary degrees from Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland (1966), Lund University, Sweden (1987), and the University of Minnesota (1996). He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1977.

Herb was preceded in death by his wife Rhea and sons Peter and Rex. He is survived by sons Dick (Vibeke), John (Christa), Andy and Jeffrey (Maria) and grandchildren Patrick, Christopher, Thierry and Theora. For the last 14 years of his life, Herb was lovingly cared for by his dear friend and colleague, Vania Stefanova.

To honor Herb and his work, a donation may be mailed or submitted online: mail to the University of Minnesota Foundation in care of Ms. Sharon Kressler, Dept. Earth Sciences, University of Minnesota, 116 Church Street SE, Suite 150, Minneapolis, MN 55455; -OR- online here (then click on ‘Graduate Fellowships/Awards’, then click on the green Give Now button for ‘H.E. Wright, Jr. ‘Footsteps Award’’). The funds will be added to Herb Wright Footsteps Award given each year to a deserving graduate student pursuing research in any of the fields that were touched by him.  Please mention or include in the memo “in honor of Herb Wright” in your gift.

[i] Quoted from his remarks given after receiving American Quaternary Association Distinguished Career Award in 1996.

[ii] H.E. Wright (2010) High points in paleolimnological studies as viewed by a convert (remarks given upon receiving Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Paleolimnology Association). Journal of Paleolimnology 44:497-503.

[iii] H.E. Wright, Jr. and P.J. Bartlein (1993) Reflections on COHMAP. The Holocene 3:89-92