Witherspoon, Paul A.
Paul A. Witherspoon 1919 (Dormont, PA, USA) - 2012 (Berkeley, CA, USA)
Paul was born on 9 February 1919, in Dormont, Pa. His father was a civil engineer who worked for a time for the Carnegie Coal Company, and Paul took his first trips underground into coal mines with his father. When Paul was in high school, his father started a small cable tool drilling company to drill for natural gas, and Paul often worked on the rigs. These early experiences had a direct and lasting influence on Paul’s choice of career.
Paul graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1941 with a B.S. in petroleum engineering. He then worked for 8 years in various capacities for the Phillips Petroleum Company in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. In the fall of 1949, at the age of 30, he enrolled at the University of Kansas and graduated in 1951 with a M.Sc. in petroleum engineering physics. Shortly afterward, Paul accepted a position as head of the petroleum engineering division of the Illinois State Geological Survey in Champaign. The survey offices were on the University of Illinois campus, and for the next 5 years, while working full time for the survey, Paul pursued a Ph.D. in the university’s department of geology. His doctoral work was directed by the eminent clay mineralogist Ralph Grim, whom Paul credited as his role model in scientific life.
Paul joined the faculty in UC Berkeley’s department of mineral technology in 1957. Declining enrollments in petroleum engineering prodded Paul toward research on a broader suite of geological engineering topics, especially those involving groundwater issues. Paul’s experience with leaky cap rocks in underground gas storage projects led him to recognize the importance of aquitards (units of lesser permeability than aquifers) in hydrogeological systems sooner than many of his colleagues. His early research into the hydraulics of aquifer-aquitard systems was a precursor to issues that would soon arise in connection with contaminant transport problems, geothermal energy production, land subsidence, and nuclear waste isolation. He organized a seminal meeting at the Asilomar Conference Grounds, Calif., in 1971, which was the first conference to bring attention to the role of aquitards in groundwater flow systems.
In 1977, Paul became the first director of LBNL’s Earth sciences division. He maintained a dual appointment with UC Berkeley and continued teaching there until 1989. At LBNL, he and his team made major contributions in geothermal reservoir engineering, numerical modeling of flow through fractured rocks, large-scale field and laboratory testing of flow and transport parameters, and the integrated assessment of the thermohydrologic and hydromechanical couplings between the flow field, stress field, and heat field in subsurface environments.
LBNL’s Earth sciences division also became heavily involved in the development of viable methodologies for underground nuclear waste disposal. Paul and his team took the lead American role in the international research program at the Stripa Mine in Sweden, a project that provided the first comprehensive studies of flow and transport in fractured rock at depth. On the home front, Paul regularly offered his expertise to the U.S. Department of Energy in its assessment of the proposed nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
The Distinguished Service Award, Geological Society of America (GSA), 1996; Elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1994; The Robert E. Horton Medal of AGU Union Honors for Outstanding contribution to the geophysical aspects of hydrology, 1990; Elected to the National Academy of Engineering for “pioneering work in geothermal energy, underground storage, hydrogeology, and the flow of fluids in fractured and porous rocks.”, 1989; AGU Fellow from Hydrology Section, 1982; O.E. Meinzer Award of GSA, 1976; The Robert E. Horton Award for an outstanding contribution to the science of hydrology, 1970.
Working from his base at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), and later from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), he made significant contributions to the understanding of the flow of fluids in porous media and fractured rock, and he applied his findings to a diverse set of societally important issues, including the development of geothermal energy, use of underground gas storage, and siting and design of nuclear waste disposal facilities. In all these spheres of interest he emphasized the need to marry theoretical studies and field testing. He was especially passionate about the need for large-scale, in situ, underground experiments to guide and corroborate the predictions of theoretically based numerical models.
R. Allen Freeze, 2012, Paul Witherspoon (1919-2012), Eos, Vol. 93, No. 31, 31 July 2012