John C. Maxwell (1914-2006)

MaxwellJohn C. Maxwell, educator, geologist, and scholar, passed away on January 23, 2006. He embraced life with enthusiasm and lightened it with his sense of humor, much appreciated by his students during long summer traverses in Italy and California. He was born in Xenia, Ohio on December 28, 1914 to Addie Crawford and William Maxwell, and was predeceased by his older brother Bob and his sister Jane. He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Marian Maxwell, and their daughter, Marilyn Bradford. Their older daughter Judy died of leukemia in 1977.

After high school he was awarded a four-year scholarship to DePauw University, where he graduated in 1936 with a degree in geology. From there he went to the University of Minnesota, once again on a scholarship, and graduated with a master’s degree in 1937. After the University of Minnesota he took a job with Sun Oil Company in Beaumont, Texas, where he met and married Marian Buchanan. The academic world was his real interest, and in 1940 they drove to Princeton University, he on scholarship, and she hoping to find a job.

He was always appreciative of the scholarships he received, and in 2001 he started an endowment at The University of Texas to establish an undergraduate scholarship in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

After two years of graduate at Princeton, he enlisted in the Navy and was stationed at 90 Church Street, New York City. His Naval Intelligence group was headed by Commander Harry Hess, his thesis advisor at Princeton. Later he was stationed at the South Pacific Headquarters in New Caledonia. When he was released from the Navy in October, 1945, the family left immediately for Princeton for him to complete his thesis and to get his PhD degree.

His teaching career began at that time and lasted at Princeton until 1970, when he accepted the William Stamps Farish Chair in Geology at The University of Texas. His effectiveness as a teacher is best described by one of his former graduate students, now a professor himself: “John Maxwell was revered by his students, who found him to be an enthusiastic lecturer, a supportive advisor and one who never tried to push his ideas onto his students. His cheerful, infectious humor and his hearty laugh brightened many a classroom and defused many awkward situations.”

He served as President of the American Geological Institute, 1971; President of the Geological Society of America, 1973; Chairman, Earth Sciences Division, National Research Council, 1970-1972 and again 1981-1985; Chairman, Advisory Panel, Earth Sciences Division, National Science Foundation 1975-1976; Consultant to Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 1976-1984; Vice-chairman of Board of International Geological Correlations Program, UNESCO 1979-1984; Member, scientific panel advisory committee to the Gas Research Institute on the Siljan Deep Hole, Sweden. He was a Fulbright Research Scholar in Italy in 1952 and a Guggenheim Scholar in Italy 1961-1962. Living in Italy was a life-expanding experience for him and his family, as all benefited from living in a different culture.

His geologic work centered on ophiolite complexes, particularly those exposed in Tuscany and Liguria, Italy. He was the first American geologist to accept the existence of an ophiolite sequence ranging from peridotite at the base to volcanic rocks at the top. His pioneering insight led indirectly to the widespread acceptance of this sequence on the part of American geologists, and to the recognition a few years later of ophiolites as fragments of oceanic crust and mantle formed at mid-oceanic spreading centers. In 1964 he co-led with Italian colleagues an American Geological Institute Summer Field Institute to the northern Apennines of Italy. This trip introduced a whole generation of young American structural geologists to the geology of northern Italy, in particular the melanges containing diverse rocks in a sheared matrix of shale or serpentine.

In the late 1960s he began a mapping project in northern California where such melanges are widespread. Over the next decade or so, he and his students mapped a complete transect of the Franciscan rocks of the northern California Coast Ranges. This work still stands as the most detailed systematic mapping of an entire transect across the northern Coast Ranges of California.