William Maurice Ewing (1906-1974)

EwingW. Maurice (“Doc”) Ewing was born in Lockney, Texas, on May 12, 1906. He received a BA in physics and mathematics from Rice Institute in 1926, an MA in 1927, and a PhD in 1931.

Dr. Ewing’s entire career was devoted to education and research. This included valuable services as a consultant to the U.S. Government and to industry. He began his teaching career while still a graduate student at Rice. He served there as a Teaching Fellow from 1926 to 1929. While completing his dissertation, from 1929 to 1930, he became an Instructor in Physics at the University of Pittsburgh. From Pittsburgh he went to Lehigh University, where he served as Instructor in Physics, 1930 to 1936, and as Assistant Professor from 1936 to 1940. At Lehigh he began his career as a teacher of geophysics. In 1940 he was promoted to Associate Professor of geology at Lehigh and was granted a leave of absence to become a Research Associate at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He remained at Woods Hole from 1940 to 1944, when he went to Columbia University as Associate of Geology, from 1944 to 1947. He became Professor of geology in 1947 and in 1959 he was named Higgins Professor of Geology. Largely through Dr. Ewing’s efforts, Columbia received gifts to establish and endow the Lamont Geological Observatory (later to become the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory). He was the first Director of the Observatory, serving from its founding in 1949 until he came to Texas in 1972.

In 1972, Ewing and a number of his associates came to the UT Medical Branch at Galveston to join the new Division of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the Marine Biomedical Institute. He was also appointed as a Professor in the Department of Geology at UT-Austin. He served on graduate student committees, but, because his office and lab were in Galveston, he did no classroom teaching.

Dr. Ewing’s greatest love was the study of the character, structure, composition, and origin of ocean basins. For this task he used reflection and refraction seismology, gravity, heat flow, magnetic observations, and sediment samples. Among his contributions are the discovery of the Sigsbee salt-cored knolls in the Gulf of Mexico; the SOFAR channel, a continuous layer in the ocean where sound energy is trapped by focussing, thus providing a mechanism for long-range communications.; invented and encouraged the use of the piston corer and deep-sea camera; and collaborated on the invention of a long-period seismograph that helped define the velocity structure of the Earth’s outer layers.

Throughout his career of nearly fifty years of teaching and research Dr. Ewing was deeply involved in the work of his students and associates. This is strikingly illustrated by the appended bibliography of more than 350 papers, of which he was author or co-author, a scant two dozen list Ewing as the sole author. Over one hundred and thirty co-authors are listed most of whom were among the 200-plus graduate students with whom he worked. They represent a substantial part of theWho’s Who in Geophysics. He took more pride in their achievements than almost anything else.

Dr. Ewing was bubbling over with ideas and concepts and wanted each of them to be tried out immediately, exhausting his students with the urgency of getting the equipment built or the research complete without delay. Yet no one could complain, because he worked harder and longer than anyone around him. His “vacation” trips inevitably included three or four business contacts each day. On one occasion his wife convinced him to spend a week resting at a small lake in the woods where there was no phone service. He later told one of his colleagues that the first day he was restless, the second he was uneasy, and the third he packed up and returned to the laboratory.

Maurice Ewing was chief scientist at sea on more than fifty cruises. At such he would rarely rest more than three or four hours before he had to return to the deck to see that all was going well. He rarely assigned a particular task to anyone, but preferred to describe the opportunity in such glowing terms that the subordinate would volunteer to carry it out. He frequently started a project and turned it over to someone to carry out. He would then leave it to the latter unless he was specifically asked for help.

Ewing had a very well developed sense of humor for everyday affairs, and could always top anyone’s story. However, he would not tolerate any humor in his work, pointing out that many serious errors or omissions resulted from “humorous” statements or events, which were allowed to distract people from their work.

Maurice Ewing was unwilling to dilute his efforts or waste time on things outside the mainstream of his interests. Therefore, he was not a “joiner” and was an active member of only about half dozen national scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences. He was an honorary member or fellow, or corresponding member, of a greater number of such societies in the U.S. and seven foreign countries.

Dr. Ewing’s outstanding contributions to geophysics were recognized by the conferring of eleven honorary degrees by universities in the United States and four foreign countries. He was also awarded fifteen medals and prizes including the National Medal of Science, the Vetlsen Award of Columbia University, the Navy’s Distinguished Service A ward, the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Agassiz Medal of the National Academy of Science, the Medal of Honor from Rice University, the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London, the Day Medal and Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America, the Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union and the Sidney Powers Medal of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

Maurice Ewing died in Galveston, Texas, on May 4, 1974, at the age of 67.