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04/26/2011 07:00:00

W. Barclay Kamb, 79

Caltech remembers and celebrates the life of alumnus W. Barclay Kamb, Barbara and Stanley R. Rawn, Jr., Professor of Geology and Geophysics, Emeritus, who died at his home on April 21. He was 79.

Born in San José, Kamb began his long and distinguished Caltech career in 1948 as an undergraduate at the age of 16. He graduated with a degree in physics in 1952 and obtained his PhD in geology in 1956. Hired upon graduation as assistant professor of geology, Kamb rose through the ranks to become a full professor in 1962 and Rawn Professor in 1990. He served as chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences for 11 years, from 1972 to 1983, and as vice president and provost of the Institute from 1987 to 1989.

"Barclay was more than a mentor—he epitomized the Institute," says Ed Stolper, Caltech's provost and the William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology. "His profound understanding of physical science and how it can be applied to solving problems in the earth and planetary sciences; his truly extraordinary intellect and focus; his understanding of the importance of geological field work interpreted in a rigorous physical, chemical, and mathematical framework; and his commitment to the division and to the Institute all taught the cohort that he hired what was so special about Caltech and about our responsibility to preserve it."

Kamb was a man of many interests and deep intellect whose expertise in the physical sciences was broad. Although he began his graduate studies as a physics student, a strong love of the outdoors and the influence of Bob Sharp—a renowned geologist credited with building the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech—drew him into geology. Kamb's thesis work, related to the structure of the complex mineral zunyite, was done under the direction of Nobel laureate and professor of chemistry Linus Pauling. A year after earning his PhD, Kamb married Pauling's daughter, Linda.

"For me, Barclay Kamb was one of the best examples of what makes Caltech special," says David Stevenson, Osdol Professor of Planetary Science, who was hired by Kamb in 1980. "Where else would you find a geologist who had a deep understanding of quantum mechanics?"

Kamb contributed to many areas of science, but he is best known as one of the world's leading glaciologists, having enhanced our understanding of the crystal structure of ice and the dynamics of glacier movement. He developed and maintained an intellectually and physically challenging field program on glaciers around the world, establishing new techniques and making unique and technically difficult measurements under extreme conditions. One of his most important contributions to the study of glacier motion was drilling through glaciers to their bases and sampling and imaging the contact between the glacier and the underlying rock. This work provided critical insights into glacier flow—especially the extraordinarily rapid movement that characterizes some glaciers. In recognition of his extensive research on Antarctic ice streams, the Kamb Ice Stream was named in his honor in 2003.

Kamb was both a Guggenheim Fellow and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow during his tenure at Caltech. He directed Caltech's research program at the Blue Glacier on Mount Olympus in Olympic National Park, Washington, which helped geologists gain a better understanding of flow processes in ice, and he was a fellow of the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union. Kamb received many honors, including the Mineralogical Society of America Award, and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.

"I can say with absolute certainty that were it not for Barclay Kamb, I would not be at Caltech," says Stolper, who is one of ten faculty members in the Division of Geological Planetary Sciences hired during Barclay's time as division chair. "He was a remarkable human being, scientist, and friend, and he will be missed."

Kamb is survived by his wife, Linda Pauling Kamb; his brother, Peter Ray, and his sister, Barbara Marinacci; his sons Barclay J., Alexander (Sasha), Anthony, and Linus; and nine grandchildren.

Donations made in Kamb's honor can be sent to the Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter at 3435 Wilshire Blvd #320, Los Angeles, CA 90010-1904 (or call 213-387-4287 for more information). 

Written by Katie Neith