In memoriam: Robert Berner, a ‘giant of geology’

Robert Arbuckle Berner, the Alan M. Bateman Professor Emeritus of Geology and Geophysics and a pathbreaking researcher, passed away Jan. 10 after a long illness.

Berner, who was 79 and a resident of North Haven, Connecticut, joined the Yale faculty in 1965 from the University of Chicago and taught until his retirement in 2007. He was the editor of the American Journal of Science from 1980 to 1990 and president of the Geochemical Society in 1983.

Jay Ague, chair of the Department of Geology and Geophysics, called Berner a “giant of geology.”

“Bob was one of the greatest geochemists and, more broadly, geologists who ever lived,” Ague said. “It is simply impossible to list all of his accomplishments. Much of his research centered on the quantitative geochemistry of sediments, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that he defined the field as we know it. He made seminal contributions to, for example, the geochemistry of sulfides and carbonates in the oceans, diagenesis, weathering, and geochemical cycling. He was a thoughtful teacher and mentor, inspiring a whole generation of geochemists who got their Ph.D.’s or did their postdoctoral research in his lab.”

Berner was born in Erie, Pennsylvania. He earned a B.A. (1957) and an M.A. (1958) from the University of Michigan. He earned his Ph.D. in geology at Harvard in 1962. In 1959, Berner married fellow geology graduate student Elizabeth Marshall Kay. They worked together for decades, collaborating on three books about the global water cycle. Berner also was the author or co-author of hundreds of journal articles, and was a Most Cited Scientist by the Institute for Science Information.

Berner’s many honors included election to the National Academy of Science in 1987 and an honorary doctorate from the University Aix-Marseille in 1991. In 2013, the Franklin Institute awarded Berner the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth and Environmental Science. He received various other scientific honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1971) and six medals: the Huntsman (oceanography, in 1993), the Goldschmidt (1995), the Arthur Day (1996), the Murchison (1996), the Bownocker (2001), and the Vernadsky (2012). He also was a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

“Bob’s research in any one of the areas he studied would have made a spectacular career,” Ague said. “The fact that he made such fundamental contributions to so many areas makes his achievements and legacy all the more remarkable. Arguably his broadest impact has been in the area of carbon cycling. For example, Bob spearheaded the quantitative interpretation of the CO2 content of the atmosphere over the last 600 million years of Earth history. His work provided the basis for virtually all modern carbon cycling research going on today. This understanding of past CO2 levels and paleoclimates has provided an invaluable baseline of comparison for determining the impact of today’s anthropogenic CO2 emissions on the atmosphere and the associated climate change.”

Colleagues and former students also recalled Berner as an extraordinary mentor.

“My experience with Bob has been a guiding light and a badge I wear proudly,” said Timothy W. Lyons, a Distinguished Professor of Biogeochemistry at the University of California-Riverside. Berner was his Ph.D. adviser at Yale.

“It sounds corny, but I’ve described him as the Picasso of low-temperature geochemistry,” Lyons said. “He would dominate, or, more often, create a fundamentally new area of research and then blaze another path, often in a very different area of research, for others to follow. His impact runs so deep and in so many directions that it’s impossible to quantify.”

Lyons and others also spoke fondly of Berner’s passion for music, baseball, and wine. “He showed us the value of finding the right balance between the personal and professional parts of our lives,” Lyons said.

Berner is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; his three children, John (Cathy) of Houston, Texas; Susan Wenger (Mark) of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.; James (Sheila) of Westport, Connecticut; and seven grandchildren, as well as a brother, Paul C. Berner, of La Porte, Texas. In lieu of flowers, donations in Berner’s name can be made to the Geology Graduate Research and Field Studies fund, c/o Chair’s office and Rebecca Pocock, P.O .Box 208109, New Haven, Conn. 06511.