2001 Professional Achievement Award
William A. Berggren ’52
It’s not uncommon for a philosophy major to hear the question: What are you going to do with that degree? In the case of William A. Berggren ’52, the answer was simple—become a geologist.
From Dickinson—where he was a member of the Commons Club and the men’s track and field team, as well as an intramural sports participant—he went to Cornell University, the University of Houston, and the University of Stockholm, eventually earning an MS, a PhD, and a DSc, all in geology. In 1962, after wrapping up his work in Stockholm, he began a six-month stay in the former Soviet Union, working through a U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange program at the University of Moscow and the Geological Institute of the Academy of Sciences. It was there, he says, that he developed his “life-long interest in unifying planktonic foraminiferal taxonomic concepts of Russian and Western micropaleontologists”—which in layman’s terms means he figured out how to distinguish microscopic species living in large bodies of water by examining the minute details of their morphology. This search carried him to Crimea and Caucasus, until he embarked on a three-year stint of applied research with the Oasis Oil Company in Libya in late 1962.
When he returned to the U.S. in 1965, he jump-started micropaleontological studies at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Around this time—through a connection with The Deep Sea Drilling Project—he became interested in predicting what sort of rock layers drillers could expect to find as they went deeper into the earth. This interest led him to research the arrangement of the geologic time scale for the Cenozoic era, a geologic age that began 65 million years ago and continues today. Using a variety of geological and biological factors, he reconstructed the Cenozoic scale, with versions published between 1971 and 1995. During this time, he was also publishing extensively on paleoceanography and the history of oceanic circulation in the context of plate tectonics and continental drift, among other topics.
For his persistent and pioneering work in the field, he has been awarded the U.S. Academy of Science’s Mary Clark Thompson Medal in Geology and Paleontology (1982), the Cushman Award for Excellence in Foraminiferal Research (1995), and the Society for Sedimentary Geology’s (SEPM’s) Raymond C. Moore Medal in Paleontology (2000). He is also the only living Dickinson alumnus to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1989); he is a fellow in the Geological Society of America (1993); and he holds honorary membership in SEPM (1997).
When he “retired” in 1993, he didn’t exactly stop working. Today he is a senior scientist (emeritus) at Woods Hole and a distinguished visiting professor in the geology department at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He and his wife, Marie-Pierre, now split their time between residences in Cape Cod and Provence, France, as well as finding time to spend with their four children: Erik, Anna, Lars, Sara and their families.
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