He taught us 'the truth lies in the rocks'
After 'eureka moment,' Newfoundland geologist became a key inspiration behind the modern science of plate tectonics
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 11, 2010
Harold (Hank) Williams, the geologist known for his insight into plate tectonics, was a superb fieldworker and mapper, and always a few steps ahead of everyone else. His ability to reinterpret and synthesize data could shift theories in exciting new directions, as when he peered through hazy ideas of mountain building and, in what colleague Jack Botsford called "a eureka moment," reinterpreted the Appalachian mountain chain and seized on plate tectonics.
Williams, also a self-taught musician, dubbed this new concept "the Harry Hibbs effect" after the famous Newfoundland accordion player, making a complex hypothesis accessible to ordinary people. He wanted people to understand his work because, he said, "the truth lies in the rocks."
"He was not exactly a rebel, but he was not exactly mainstream, either," said Paul Dean, a colleague who was once his student. "He just thought differently. And thought on a very large scale."
A scale as huge as the Appalachians, the vast mountain system from that runs from Alabama to Norway. This is what Williams studied, and worked to protect: The stunning formations in Newfoundland's Gros Morne that led to his findings have been preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (His campaign to have Gros Morne listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World was almost as successful.) He also drafted a steady stream of writing and mapping. His bibliography, beginning in 1957, lists four to six works published every year. Williams was probably the most-cited earth scientist of his cohort, and published more maps than anyone else.
He was born and grew up on the South Side of St. John's, the son of Alexander and Catherine Williams. Alexander Williams worked what trades the harbour offered, including the seal hunt, but died in 1939. From childhood, Williams worked, and worked hard. For example, as a boy he would sell cod tongues he collected from under the wharves where the fishermen gutted their catch. This enterprise earned him the nickname Spatters, because he would get sprayed by the water used to clean the fillets, said his friend and fellow musician, Ted Blanchard.
He attended school at St. Mary's and St. Michael's, still working as he could at odd jobs around the port city. One day he was carrying fish, part of a two-man barrow team, when an older man told him, "You'll be doing this the rest of your life, if you don't get an education."
"He took that seriously," Blanchard said. Williams entered Memorial University, first pursuing engineering, then moving to geology (now earth sciences) and earning the first geology degree from Memorial in 1956. This was followed by an MSc in 1958, and then his PhD from the University of Toronto in 1961, where his doctoral adviser as the geophysicist and geologist J. Tuzo Wilson. The Geological Survey of Canada sponsored his thesis and in 1961 assigned him to the Appalachian Section, under Ward Neale.
Williams was a keen observer, a meticulous mapmaker and had an inventive knack for integrating and synthesizing data. In 1964 he published "The Appalachians in Northeastern Newfoundland: A two-sided symmetrical system," in the American Journal of Science; this and his 1967 GSC "Geology of Newfoundland (Island)" map of Newfoundland were fundamental to Wilson's idea that the Iapetus, the proto-Atlantic Ocean site between the paleocontinents, had opened and shut. Plate tectonics was born.
"Hank's thinking was key to that," Dean said
In 1968 Williams joined the geology department at Memorial University. It was a time of ideas and opportunities. His doctoral students included Ron Smyth, who would become chief geologist of New Brunswick, and John Malpas, now pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong. It was no accident that so many of his students did well. "Hank was full of his own confidence, and he instilled them with confidence," Dean said.
Williams' map, "Tectonic-Lithofacies Map of the Appalachian Orogen" (1978), considered a classic, is another example of his assurance. The first to depict an entire mountain belt, "this single map encompassed the whole Appalachian from Newfoundland to Georgia," Dean said. "You were able to trace the parcels and see that Georgia was the same as Cow Head."
When Williams had finished the million-scale map, there was publishing interest from several outlets, but they all needed some format restrictions. He refused, went to Memorial University President Moses Morgan and sold the idea the university for a $40,000 advance. Cartography was done at the university and the maps were designed with unorthodox bold print that could be read from the back of a classroom.
Ten thousand copies were ordered; "without notice and on a very rainy day, 10,000 maps were delivered to the Geology Department where there was no place to store them," Neale wrote in a conference paper in 1994. "A quick decision was made to re-route the shipment to the Williams' house, where 5 tons of maps were loaded onto the living room floor. The floor began to buckle at 4.85 tons so Hank took off to a nearby Canadian Tire store to purchase adjustable jacks which were quickly placed under the downbows to restore equilibrium."
The maps were sold - and they all were sold - from there. The advance was repaid and $50,000 raised for scholarships. The maps now hang on geology department walls all over North America and Europe.
When Williams' work and advocacy led to World Heritage recognition of the Gros Morne National Park in 1987, Prince Edward was on hand for the designation, and Williams was chosen his guide. Asked if he felt lucky to be so honoured, Williams demurred, saying, "Tis Buddy [Prince Edward] who's the lucky one, he could have been stuck with some political ringer instead of spending his time with me, the guy who knows the most about the rocks in this park."
Williams also ran the most amazing field trips Dean said. Students and professors would come, and compete to come, from all over North America. The trips would start in May, which could mean any kind of weather, embarking from Stephenville and crossing the island in seven to nine days, exploring a full cross-section of Newfoundland and the Appalachians.
"Every night we'd talk geology," Dean said. "And every night we'd have a party." Williams, who could play the guitar, banjo, ukulele, tin whistle and fiddle (he'd won two fiddle competitions, and in 1986 he recorded the album Button and Bows, with Geoff Butler), was often the lead entertainment. "All his grad students, if they weren't playing music when they came to undertake their studies, they were when they left," said Botsford, who was also taught by, and later played with, Williams.
"He made sure people had fun," Dean said.
Not that his took studies lightly. In the classroom, in seminars, he was rigorous and could be tough. If you hadn't done your homework, you'd be sorry. At the same time he was so interesting and commanding a speaker, with such a thorough knowledge of his field, that he was regularly slotted into early morning classes with large enrolments.
Williams was enthusiastic about his work, and unpretentious about his reputation. "Mention his name in Georgia, they'll know him immediately," Dean said. But they also know him in Cow Head, or Pilley's Island. On fieldwork, Williams hired locals to be his boatmen, and they'd become friends. "He was a well respected scientist and he could speak the jargon," Botsford said. "But he was most comfortable sitting in a twine loft." And if there was a bottle of dark rum handy, all the better.
His 23-page CV includes such awards as the GAC's Past President's Medal and Logan Medal (he was the first to win both); being elected as Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada when he was only 38; being awarded the Miller Medal by the RSC Academy of Science; being the first winner of the R. J. W. Douglas Medal of the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists; and being the first geoscientist to be awarded the Isaac Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship. He retired to professor emeritus in 1997 and, in 2005, he was made honorary research professor at Memorial University.
"Few things are accomplished in any science without someone having the audacity, the confidence, and the respect to lead the charge," Richard Haworth, as chief geophysicist of the British Geological Survey, once said of Williams. "This is what Hank has done with Appalachian geology."
Williams died suddenly at home Sept. 28. He had previously suffered a stroke and been fitted with a pacemaker. He leaves his wife, Emily Jean, sons Sandy, David and Steven, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
* Governor General's Medal, Memorial University of Newfoundland (1956)
Dr. Hans Wielens passed away this August, shortly after his retirement from GSC Atlantic. He was 62, born March 5, 1948 in Berg en Dal, The Netherlands and was a son of the late Johannes and Maria (Horstman) Wielens. Hans studied at the universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam, where he earned a Ph.D in Geology. He emigrated to Canada (Calgary) in 1979 and worked as a petroleum geologist for Shell, the GSC, and Unocal before starting his own consulting company. Hans moved to NS in 1999 to work at the BIO, from which he retired in July 2010. As an adjunct professor at Dalhousie University he assisted in the Earth Sciences department. Through his work, he met many wonderful people. For Hans, Nova Scotia is a geologist's paradise. He had a passion for geology, woodworking, gardening, hiking and photography. Hans was very proud of his three sons and he will be missed by the many whose lives he touched. He is survived by his wife of 37 years, Jeanette (Dederen), sons Olaf, Nils and Bjorn. His sisters, Tessy (Chris) and Jose, and a niece and nephews in the Netherlands.
Professor Emeritus, University of New Brunswick