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Franklyn Bosworth Van Houten 1914-2010

Photo Captions: (top left) Lt. Franklyn Van Houten in the service, 1943, (top right) in the field in Spain, 1980, (bottom left) in retirement, 1990, and recieving the Twenhofel Medal from Orrin H. Pilkey, Jr., President of the Society for Sedimentary Geology.

 

Franklyn Bosworth Van Houten 1914-2010
Read to Princeton University faculty on February 7, 2011, Nassau Hall, by Tullis Onstott
 
Franklyn Van Houten was a member of the Department of Geosciences for 39 years, from 1946 to 1985. He and his wife, Jean, always lived near the intersection of Western Way and Fitzrandolph from where he jauntily walked every day to his office in Guyot Hall. He suffered a devastating stroke in 1991; and Jean died in 1997 after 54 years of marriage. Yet he kept on walking. Van, as he was known to his students and colleagues, published continuously from 1940 to 1990, with one final paper in 1997, when he was 83. He died on Aug. 27, 2010 at the age of 96. 
 
He was born in NYC in 1914, and majored in biology and geology at Rutgers University, graduating in 1936. He arrived at Princeton intending to focus his dissertation on the study of vertebrate fossils with Professor Glenn Jepson '27. But, by the time he had finished his PhD. thesis in 1941, his interests had shifted toward understanding the environments of deposition of terrestrial sediments within which these fossils resided.
 
In 1942 he enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he tracked German U-boats in the North Atlantic and after D-Day was transferred to Europe where from various billets he managed to publish his thesis, one chapter in the journal, Science. In 1946 he left active duty at the rank of Lieutenant to join Princeton's Department of Geology as an assistant professor.
 
During the 50’s Van used a differential thermal analysis instrument and a primitive X-ray diffraction unit to characterize the mineral content of fine-grained sediments from the Rockies. Among many notable results was the surprising discovery of zeolites that had grown within the sedimentary layers. Tracking these occurrences of zeolites eventually led Van to study the sedimentary rocks of the Newark Basin here in New Jersey during the 60’s.
 
Van discovered and described cyclic sedimentation of the Triassic/Jurassic age Newark Basin, at both a macro- and micro-scale. At the macro-scale, packages of sedimentary rock, some 6 meters thick, repeated lithologies, gray to red, over and over again. At the micro-scale, some of the sedimentary rocks were made up of thin laminations; these reminded him of similar features described elsewhere in sediments that were due to annual variations in precipitation. Van speculated that the longer cycles could be due to the same orbital variations of the Earth around the Sun that Milankovic invoked to explain the ice ages.
 
This suggestion that these ancient rocks and deposited at low latitudes could preserve the record of Milankovic’s cycles came 15 years before work on deep sea cores would confirm this concept, and Van admitted that his proposal was speculative for its time. However, 25 years later, Paul Olsen at Columbia University verified that Van’s "guess" was in fact correct and resulted in a major advance in climate science.   The cycles are now known as Van Houten cycles and you can still see these cycles and Van’s delineating paint marks if you drive along highway 29N going from Stockton to Frenchtown.
 
Van also incorporated the new paradigm of plate tectonics when it erupted in the Princeton geology department in the mid-60’s. He was able to match the Triassic geology of Morocco to that of New Jersey, two regions that had been neighbors until they were separated by the opening of the Atlantic. Virtually all Van's contributions addressed understanding the environments of terrestrial sedimentation. This included the depositional environment of red beds and molasse and the origin of oolitic iron deposits across the globe from the Colombian Andes to the Canadian Rockies, from the Alps and to the Pyrenees, and across Northern Africa, Madagascar and Taiwan. 
 
Van's exploits and adventures in his fieldwork in several remote regions of the world are legendary. One example: in the summer of 1953, he spent four months working for the Geological Survey of Canada, along the Yukon-Northwest Territories border. Two geologists, a guide and several pack horses and a floatplane, exploring the Mackenzie Mts. They survived a crash landing of their floatplane. The same cannot be said, however, of two grizzlies that encountered Van during the long trek out, one of which became a rug in Van's office.
 
Van vigorously guarded his role as a college professor: attentive to his classes, his students, his colleagues, and his research. He had no aspirations for so-called "higher office" whether in professional societies, government, or the university. He knew that such activities would mostly serve as distractions from his core research and teaching interests. A myriad of students have taken his courses or been with him in the field, written a senior thesis or produced a PhD dissertation, or have had their manuscripts Van Houten-edited, or have been politely but incisively questioned in oral examinations, who gladly acknowledge being "his student."
 
The overall philosophy of his research and teaching style was to question dogma, challenge theories constantly, pursue original ideas to their conclusion, and do what needs to be done without complaint or fanfare and with humility. He was very conscientious in doing things that would help others down the road. An example was the guidebooks he wrote on the geology of New Jersey, and especially of Newark Basin. When asked why he was spending so much time on the guide, the answer was, “because that is the way Van is. He knows that if he doesn’t do that, nobody will, and the product will help future generations of students." He was motivated to do what he could do for the future of his students and of the profession; anything else was a distraction.
 
In 1985, the year he retired, Van was awarded the William H. Twenhofel Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists for outstanding contributions in sedimentary geology. The citation read by one of his students states:
"For four decades of distinguished research and achievement in the study of the relationships between deposition and tectonics, superior teaching and training of students, and demonstrating what a difference one excellent, industrious geologist of great integrity can make."
 
This resolution was prepared by Professors Lincoln S. Hollister and Tullis C. Onstott.
 
Madame President: For the Committee I move that this resolution be spread on the records of the faculty; that a copy be sent to his daughter Jean Evans and sons Bosworth and David, and to the Archivist of the University.
 
 
                                                                            Prof. L.S. Hollister
 
                                                                            Prof. T.C. Onstott
 
 
Professional Societies, Franklyn B. Van Houten:
 
The Geological Society of America
P.O. Box 9140
Boulder, CO 80301-9140
 
American Association of Petroleum Geologists
P. O. Box 979
Tulsa, OK 74101-0979
 
International Association of Sedimentologists
Peter Swart
University of Miami
4600 Rickenbacker Causeway
Miami, FL, 33149 US
 
Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists
4111 S Darlington
Suite 100
Tulsa, OK 74135-6373
 
Colombian Geological Society (honorary)
Sociedad Colombiana de Geología
Diagonal 53 No. 34 – 53 
Bogotá D.C., Colombia