Kirkham, Don

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Don Kirkham

Don Kirkham at his 80th birthday celebration


Don Kirkham 1908 (Utah, United States) - 1998 (Iowa, United States)


Don Kirkham, former Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture and Professor of Physics at Iowa State University, was probably the best-known soil physicist of the 20th Century. His special interest was the flow of water through soils and drainage of agricultural land. Given that much of Iowa's farmland would not support a crop without drainage, this special interest was highly appropriate at Iowa State.

Kirkham was born and raised in Utah. After two years as a missionary in Germany for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he studied physics at Columbia University, where he earned bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. degrees. Returning in 1937 to teach mathematics and physics at Utah State University, he became aware of agricultural and soil sciences by way of the newly emerging discipline of soil physics. These new vistas came about under the inspirational tutelage of Prof. Willard Gardner, soil physicist in the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station.

In Kirkham's own words: "Although my teaching load was 18 hours a week, I was so much fascinated by the Utah State soil physics research program that I entered into it." In fact, he published 11 papers relating to drainage of agricultural soils between 1939 amd 1946.

It was also at Utah State that Kirkham met his future wife, Betty. She also had studied at Columbia University, but the two never met there. They married on September 2, 1939, and raised three children: Victoria Eulalia, Mary Beth, and Don Collier.

Returning from war service with the U.S. Naval Ordnance Laboratory in 1946, Kirkham was appointed as associate professor of soils and of physics at Iowa State University, with responsibilities for research and teaching in soil physics. This gave him the opportunity to devote much of his time and inexhaustible energy to agricultural drainage problems, thus enabled the flowering of his own special genius - his unparalleled insight and skill in solving the mathematical boundary value problems of soil-water movement, particularly as related to saturated flow and drainage.

Recognized as a highly effective teacher even by students outside soil physics, Kirkham's principal educational achievement is the 89 graduate degrees students earned under his guidance. He also was a prolific writer, co-authoring with his former student, Bill Powers, the highly regarded textbook, Advanced Soil Physics. He was first author on more than 70 scientific publications and co-author on many more.

He accepted a number of overseas assignments, including to The Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey, Egypt and Argentina. He also received many honors, among them an honorary degree from the University of Ghent in Belgium, as well as the 1983/4 Wolf Prize in Agriculture and the American Geophysical Union Robert E. Horton Medal in 1995. He formally retired in 1978, but continued to work and publish until his death in 1998.

As a recognition of Don Kirkham's contributions, the Soil Science Society of America presents the Don and Betty Kirkham Soil Physics Award to a mid-career soil scientist who has made outstanding contributions in the areas of soil physics.

Hydrological Achievements[edit]

In the last century, Don Kirkham probably had more impact on drainage theory and soil physics as a discipline than any other person in the world. His towering contribution came not solely from his considerable intelligence and intellectual skills but also from his kindly and unpretentious demeanor and spirit in dealing with students, colleagues and others.

The host of exact mathematical solutions he provided has established him as without peer in this specialty, and qualifies him to be known as the founder of mathematical soil physics. He is credited with laying a mathematical foundation for drainage theory, changing the design of drainage systems from a purely experience-based skill to one based on physical understanding.

Reference Material[edit]


Major Publications[edit]


Kirkham, D. and Powers, W.L., 1972. Advanced soil physics. Wiley.


Kirkham, D., 1946. Proposed method for field measurement of permeability of soil below the water table. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 10(C), pp.58-68.

Kirkham, D., 1947. Field method for determination of air permeability of soil in its undisturbed state. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 11(C), pp.93-99.

Luthin, J.N. and Kirkham, D., 1949. A piezometer method for measuring permeability of soil in situ below a water table. Soil Science, 68(5), pp.349-358.

Kirkham, D., 1949. Flow of ponded water into drain tubes in soil overlying an impervious layer. Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 30(3), pp.369-385.

Kirkham, D. and Feng, C.L., 1949. SOME TESTS OF THE DIFFUSION THEORY, AND LAWS OF CAPILLARY FLOW, IN SOILS. Soil Science, 67(1), pp.29-40.

Gardner, W. and Kirkham, D., 1952. DETERMINATION OF SOIL MOISTURE BY NEUTRON SCATTERING. Soil Science, 73(5), pp.391-402.

Kirkham, D.O.N. and Bartholomew, W.V., 1954. Equations for following nutrient transformations in soil, utilizing tracer data. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 18(1), pp.33-34.

Kirkham, D. and Bartholomew, W.V., 1955. Equations for Following Nutrient Transformations in Soil, Utilizing Tracer Data: II. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 19(2), pp.189-192.

Kirkham, D., 1958. Seepage of steady rainfall through soil into drains. Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 39(5), pp.892-908.

Phillips, R.E. and Kirkham, D., 1962. Soil compaction in the field and corn growth. Agronomy journal, 54(1), pp.29-34.

Benoit, G.R. and Kirkham, D., 1963. The effect of soil surface conditions on evaporation of soil water. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 27(5), pp.495-498.

Kirkham, D., 1967. Explanation of paradoxes in Dupuit‐Forchheimer Seepage Theory. Water Resources Research, 3(2), pp.609-622.

Boast, C.W. and Kirkham, D., 1971. Auger hole seepage theory. Soil science Society of America Journal, 35(3), pp.365-373.

Troeh, F.R., Jabro, J.D. and Kirkham, D., 1982. Gaseous diffusion equations for porous materials. Geoderma, 27(3), pp.239-253.

Modaihsh, A.S., Horton, R. and Kirkham, D., 1985. SOIL WATER EVAPORATION SUPPRESSION BY SAND MULCHES. Soil Science, 139(4), pp.357-361.