Francis Pettijohn, 94, headed Hopkins geology department

April 27, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Francis J. Pettijohn, former head of the department of geology at the Johns Hopkins University, died Friday of congestive heart failure at Glen Meadows retirement community in Glen Arm. He was 94.

Dr. Pettijohn, who joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 1952, was chairman of the department of geology from 1963 to 1968. He retired in 1973.

The former longtime Towson resident was considered the founder of modern sedimentology, which is the study of Precambrian rocks more than 500 million years old and the environment in which they were created by waterborne sediments.

His work also had applications in the field of oil and natural gas exploration. A 30-year study by Dr. Pettijohn and his graduate students resulted in a detailed explanation of the sedimentary development and destruction of the Appalachian chain.

He was the author of "Sedimentary Rocks," which has remained a standard textbook in the field for more than 30 years. He wrote or was co-author of articles and 24 other books on his specialty, including "A Century of Geology, 1885-1985, at the Johns Hopkins University."

Dr. David Veblein, chairman of the earth and planetary sciences department at Hopkins, described him as "a robust field geologist."

"There isn't a sedimentologist in the world who hasn't heard of Francis Pettijohn," said Dr. L. A. Hardie, professor of sedimentology at Hopkins. "He was a scholar of the highest order."

Colleagues described Dr. Pettijohn as quiet and unassuming.

"He used the quiet force of logic to make his point," said Dr. George W. Fisher, professor of geology at Hopkins. "He was not a theoretical-based geologist and preferred to get his answers in the field. He enjoyed being in nature and finding a new outcropping that no one had looked at before."

Beginning in the 1920s and for years later, Dr. Pettijohn extensively studied the oldest sedimentary layers in North America, near Lake Superior and northwestern Ontario, Canada.

His studies took him into the remote backcountry, which he reached in the early days by canoe and later by motorboat. For weeks at a time, he lived in the outdoors, gathering samples and studying rock formations.

"To some this is perhaps disappointing -- we might expect rocks to be very different in ancient times. Yet in a sense it is even more astonishing to think that the earth has been much the same for about three billion years," he wrote in his autobiography, "Memoirs of An Unrepentant Field Geologist."

"After all, water ran downhill then as now, carrying sands and gravel derived from still older rocks; volcanic eruptions produced the same types of lava. That water existed at all is astonishing, for it shows that the surface of the earth was neither warmer or colder than now," he wrote.

In his memoir, he explained his fascination with what became his life's work:

"I liked the outdoors, tramping in the countryside, exploring the limestone caves and quarries of the Bloomington [Ind.] region, collecting fossils -- all of which my mother encouraged. By the time I finished high school I had decided I would be a geologist."

Born in Waterford, Wis., Dr. Pettijohn graduated from high school in Indianapolis. He earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Minnesota, and taught at Macalester College, Oberlin College and the University of Chicago before joining Hopkins' faculty.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he received many prestigious awards, including the Twenhofel Medal from the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, the Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London, the Penrose Medal from the Geological Society of America and the Francis J. Pettijohn Medal from the Society for Sedimentary Geology.

He was an active member of Towson Unitarian Universalist Church.

In 1930, Dr. Pettijohn married Dorothy Bracken, who died in 1989. The next year, he married Virginia Romberger, who died in 1995.

Plans for a memorial service were incomplete.

He is survived by a son, Loren Pettijohn of Lutherville; two daughters, Norma Friedemann of Evanston, Ill., and Clare Maher of Philadelphia; a brother, Richard Pettijohn of Naples, Fla.; a sister, Elizabeth Dedolph of Reno, Nev.; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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