Paul A. Witherspoon: professor, mentor, Earth sciences pioneer

In Memoriam (1919-2012)

Paul Witherspoon served as an inspirational leader within the field of hydrogeological research for more than 50 years. His discoveries altered understanding of the role of fluids in subsurface rocks, and continue to be applied to pressing societal issues, among them geothermal energy and underground gas storage, to this day. Friends and colleagues at Berkeley Lab remember Paul Witherspoon, who organized and directed Berkeley Lab’s first Earth Sciences Division, as an engaging, natural leader and a dear friend. Paul Witherspoon would have been 100 years old on February 9, 2019.

In 1941, Witherspoon left Pittsburgh where he’d earned his B.S. in petroleum engineering for a job in Oklahoma City as apprentice engineer for Phillips Petroleum. He once recalled how not six months later he was digging ditches to remove some old pipelines from the oil field when news came of the attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1942, the young engineer was part of a large defense plant project to design and construct a butadiene-styrene plant in Borger, Texas, for the manufacture of synthetic rubber badly needed in the war effort. He stayed on with Phillips until 1951 when he left to pursue a M.S. in petroleum engineering physics at the University of Kansas. Later he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, while serving as petroleum engineering division head at Illinois State Geological Survey in Champaign.

Witherspoon’s move to Berkeley for a professorship at UC Berkeley in 1956 eventually came to mark a huge shift in career from petroleum- to geological engineering. He explained how, “Late in the 1960s, I think, there was a growing interest within geology in energy and environmental problems, and like most people concerned with the world situation at the time, I wondered what sort of contribution I could make. My students and I, and some other faculty members, started to study geothermal systems, with the thought that this might be another source of energy for the U.S.”

There was similar interest at Berkeley Lab which started an Energy and Environment program around that same time. Witherspoon helped put together a proposal for what became the first of the program’s many funded projects, which tackled reservoir engineering, geochemical and production engineering, geophysical studies and land subsidence research, and later the isolation of nuclear waste. Still working from his faculty position at UC-Berkeley, he later (in 1977) initiated, organized, and served as first director of Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division, which has evolved into the Earth and Environmental Sciences Area.

Paul Witherspoon received a number of awards, including the Horton Medal from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and both the Meinzer Award and the Distinguished Service Award from the Geological Society of America. He was elected in 1989 to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, in 1992 as a Foreign Member to the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and in 2001 as a Fellow of the World Innovation Foundation.

In 2015, AGU established the Paul A. Witherspoon Award and Lecture in Hydrologic Sciences, which recognizes significant and innovative contributions in hydrologic sciences by a mid-career scientist.


AGU Witherspoon Lecture Award

The Paul A. Witherspoon Lecture honors the life and work of hydrologist, Paul A. Witherspoon. Find additional information and nomination details HERE.

Biography Timeline

  • Born February 9, 1919, in Dormont, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh.
  • June 1941 – B.S. in petroleum engineering from the University of Pittsburgh
  • 1941-1945 – Phillips Petroleum, Apprentice Engineer in their Oklahoma City oil field, and Borger, assisting in putting the plant into operation.
  • 1945 – Returned to Bartlesville with Phillips, where met and married Elizabeth Talbott, October 26, 1946.
  • End of 1946 – transferred to the thriving metropolis of Eureka, Kansas.
  • 1949-1951 –  a MS degree in petroleum engineering physics, the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.
  • 1951-1956 – Illinois State Geological Survey, Urbana, Illinois. Head of the Petroleum Department. Started working on a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois.
  • End of 1956 – finished the Ph.D. dissertation on the colloidal nature of petroleum and the effect of asphaltic material on the viscosity and non-Newtonian behavior of crude oil.
  • 1957 – Professor of Petroleum Engineering of the Department of Mineral Technology of UC Berkeley.
  • 1965 – Professor of Geological Engineering of the Department of Material Sciences and Mineral Engineering of UC Berkeley.
  • 1971 – Proposal to start an engineering project on geothermal energy, which turned out to be the first funded project.
  • 1977 – Organized and moderated a workshop- sponsored by ERDA [the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration, precursor to DOE] in Austin, Texas, on the movement of fluids in largely impermeable rock.
  • 1977-1982 – Director of the Earth Sciences Division.
  • 1989 – Retirement from teaching at Cal Berkeley, and continued as Faculty Senior Scientist in the ESD of LBNL.


  • 1970 – The Robert E. Horton Award for an outstanding contribution to the science of hydrology (with Shlomo Neuman)
  • 1976 – O.E. Meinzer Award of GSA (with Shlomo Neuman)
  • 1982 – AGU Fellow from Hydrology Section
  • 1989 – 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.”
  • 1990 – The Robert E. Horton Medal of AGU Union Honors for Outstanding contribution to the geophysical aspects of hydrology.
  • 1992 – Elected Foreign Member of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.
  • 1994 – Elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  • 1996 – the Distinguished Service Award from the Geological Society of America (GSA).

Honoring Dr. Witherspoon

More Information about Dr. Witherspoon and his contributions