David Stoddart, a professor emeritus in UC Berkeley’s geography department, died Nov. 23 after years of battling numerous health problems. He was 77.
A world-renowned tropical geographer, Stoddart spent his professional life teaching and serving as the geography department chair at UC Berkeley as well as researching geomorphology (the study of the evolution of topographic features), ecology and the history of geography.
According to Paul Starrs, a former student of Stoddart’s and a professor of geography and the University of Nevada at Reno, Stoddart spent a lot of time researching the evolution of coral atolls and the relationship between tropical-area inhabitants and their environment.
“It was always a great source of pride that he did a lot of work on coral,” Starrs said. “One of the people that did that before him was Charles Darwin, and he saw himself very much in (Darwin).”
Stoddart came to UC Berkeley to serve as professor and chair of the geography department in 1988. Richard Walker, a professor emeritus of geography at UC Berkeley, said that during that time, the department was deeply divided and Stoddart was brought in to revive it.
During his time as chair, Stoddart increased the diversity of the department, hiring the only two women on staff. He also encouraged fieldwork, which was a large part of his career, for graduate students.
“He was capable of doing archival research, spending a lot of time reading and in the library, but the basis of his life was being out in the field,” said UC Berkeley alumnus Wayne Bernhardson, whose dissertation was read by Stoddart.
Before arriving in Berkeley, Stoddart was a member of the geography department at Cambridge University. In 1979, he was named an officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. Starrs said Stoddart received this ranking due to his work in halting the United Kingdom from building an air base on the Aldabra Atoll in the Western Indian Ocean. Such an air base would have harmed the more than 150,000 giant tortoises living on the atoll at the time.
During the ceremony, Stoddart was seated near the queen, and she asked him why he was being named officer. According to Starrs, Stoddart told her he saved the tortoises of Aldabra.
“It was typical of David that he would end up next to the queen and that he would have a response that was so great,” he said.
Bernhardson remembers Stoddart as outgoing, helpful and respectful.
“He had no prejudices in what was a very politicized environment,” he said. “Stoddart wanted everybody to be successful despite whether they liked his opinions or not.”
Stoddart is survived by his wife, two children and a granddaughter.