UC Berkeley geology professor emeritus Garniss Curtis dies at 93

Earth and Planetary Science of UC Berkeley/Courtesy

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Garniss Curtis, professor emeritus and founder of the Berkeley Geochronology Center died on Dec. 18 in his home in Orinda, Calif. He was 93.

Curtis, a native Californian and specialist in geology, received his undergraduate degree and doctorate at UC Berkeley in 1942 and 1951, respectively. Curtis continued at UC Berkeley as a professor until 1989. A memorial for Curtis is set to be held on Sept. 29 at the Faculty Club, according to Paul Renne, director of Berkeley Geochronology Center.

In the span of his nearly four decades at UC Berkeley, Curtis pioneered the usage of the potassium-argon dating method. He worked most notably with seismologist Jack Evernden in the 1960s to determine the precise age of the world’s earliest human fossil remains.

“They showed that the time scale of human evolution was much older than people had thought,” said Renne, a former student of Curtis’. “They worked with paleontologists to put together a timescale of mammalian evolution.”

Applying his research in potassium-argon dating, Curtis was able to determine that the hominid fossils discovered by Mary Leakey were over 1.85 million years old.

“He was the best (field geologist) I’ve ever known,” Renne said. “He could spot things that many others wouldn’t notice.”

In addition to his field work, Curtis enjoyed classical music, opera, being outdoors and spending time with friends and family.

“He was somebody who knew a great deal about many things,” said professor of geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University Gail Mahood. “He was something of a Renaissance man.”

As a member of the UC Berkeley faculty, former students and colleagues alike remember Curtis as friendly and approachable. He served as a mentor for many of his students over the course of his teaching career.

“He learned the geology of the Berkeley hills better than anyone and used it as a teaching lab,” said Wes Hildreth, a senior scientist for the Department of the Interior and Curtis’ former student. “He taught field geology methods to generations of students, and in that respect he was very influential in the whole field of geology and particularly volcanic geology. Now, many of us are spread out around the world with the skills that Garniss gave us.”

Curtis is survived by brother Ralston Curtis, daughters Penelope Curtis and Ann Pierpont Curtis, son Robin Hearfield Curtis, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His wife of 45 years, Dorette Davis Curtis, died in 1987, according to a statement from the UC Berkeley News Center.

Contact Jennie Yoon at [email protected].