Today at Berkeley Lab

In Memoriam: Paul Witherspoon (1919–2012)

Paul Witherspoon, the first director of the Lab’s Earth Sciences Division, passed away on Feb. 10, after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 93. Witherspoon was known for his pioneering research on geothermal energy, underground storage of nuclear wastes, hydrogeology, and the flow of fluids in fractured and porous rocks. He served as the founding director of ESD from 1977 to 1982, and was instrumental in defining the initial roles of Earth Sciences at the Lab and for the Department of Energy. He remained closely involved with the Division for many years. More>


  1. In the 1970s I was a geologist for Minnesota Gas Company who was developing the only underground natural gas storage project in the state of Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found it necessary to regulate our project rather intently and engaged Dr. Witherspoon as their consultant. I worked with him fairly closely as I had earlier when I was a geologist with Northern Indiana Public Service Company back in the 1960s. I found Paul to be very fair and knowledgeable. However he always listened to my opinions and analyses. I valued my relationship with him highly and still think of him often as I am sure his family and the folks who worked with him at Berkeley do. He was a man one does not soon forget! My condolences to his family and former students and colleagues.

    Dan Hall
    Retired Geologist
    Austin, Texas

  2. As a graduate student in the Mining Engineering & Mineral Sciences program in the late 1980s, I was privileged to meet and learn from Dr. Witherspoon. He was certainly a giant in the field of hydrogeology, but also very nonpretentious.

    My lasting memory of Dr. Witherspoon is from an alumni event at the UCB Faculty Club, where we graduate students were trotted out as bright & shining faces to talk to alumni. As starving grad students, all of us had our eyes on the cheese platter, especially as the night wore on and the alumni and most faculty had left the room. However, Dr. Witherspoon was still there, swapping stories with all of the grad students. That made it a little difficult to proceed with our plan to pocket a few hunks of cheese.

    A faculty club staffer came in and was ready to cart off the cheese platter. Paul must have seen the despondent looks on our faces, and immediately recognized what we were thinking about. he told the staffer, “Leave it here.” And then, with a big wink, he tucked a hunk of cheese into his pocket, giving us the green light to do the same.

    During my seven years at UC Berkeley I met many excellent professors. Paul was one of those excellent professors, but he also showed a remarkable sense of humanity and engagement with students. My best wishes go out to his family, who are surely missing their loss of an exceptional man.

    Joel Geier
    B.Sc. Mining Engineering, UCB, 1985
    (then a bit of grad school, and finally ..)
    Ph.D. Geology with emphasis in hydrogeology, Oregon State University, 2005