The founder of UO’s Center for Volcanology dies at 94

Alexander McBirney, first director of the Center of Volcanology

Alexander “Mac” McBirney came to the University of Oregon in 1965 as the first director of the UO’s Center for Volcanology. He quickly built a worldwide reputation for excellence that ranged from experimental studies of magmatic physical properties to field-based research on volcanoes in the Galápagos Islands.

Just days after suffering a stroke, McBirney, a professor emeritus still revered by researchers in the Department of Earth Sciences and internationally, died Sunday evening, April 7, at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend. He was 94.

A remembrance for McBirney, open to the public, will be held at 4 p.m., Saturday, April 20, at the Hope Abbey at the Eugene Masonic Cemetery at the corner of East 25th Avenue and University Street.

“He was an innovator at a critical time in the study of volcanology, incorporating new ideas in geochemistry, geophysics and petrology into the problem of understanding how magmas ascend and erupt,” said Josef Dufek, the UO’s Lillis Professor of Volcanology and current leader of the Center for Volcanology.

Though McBirney stepped into partial retirement in July 1989, his presence had remained strong, said Dana Johnston, professor emeritus, who joined the UO’s volcano center in 1986. McBirney worked with Dan Weill, now a professor emeritus, and Gordon Goles, who died in 2003, in launching the volcanology group, Johnston said.

“Mac’s arrival marked a turning point in the department’s trajectory,” said Johnston, who visited twice with McBirney in the month before his death. “Mac was of another generation and will always represent for me one of the last of the golden age of exploration.”

McBirney’s research — much of it focused on the multi-layered Skaergaard intrusion of minerals and igneous rocks in east Greenland and the volcanoes of the Cascades and Galápagos Islands — served to write the book on igneous rocks. His textbook “Igneous Petrology,” now in a third edition, is widely used and recognized as the main resource on igneous rocks, which form from cooling and solidification of magma or lava.

“The department has been among the top volcanology research programs since the 1960s, thanks to professor McBirney’s contributions,” said Paul Wallace, head of the Department of Earth Sciences, who first met McBirney in 1989 and spent time with him on the Galapágos Islands in 1998. “The UO's prominence in this area has continued to grow over many decades through innovative research in our department.”

Volcanology is one of the UO’s clusters of excellence. Several new faculty members have been hired thanks to a gift from Charles and Gwen Lillis, Wallace said. As a result, the UO is positioned as an international leader in developing new technologies and approaches in volcano science and hazard mitigation, he added.

McBirney, who earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a doctorate in 1961 from the University of California, Berkeley, had a lifelong fascination with the Galapágos Islands, Wallace said.

In 1964, McBirney spent 11 weeks traveling the islands as part of an international project. The team tagged and monitored the island’s giant tortoises, generated the first complete list of Galápagos flora, discovered dozens of new species and investigated the volcanoes and geologic history of the islands.

His continuing research in the region resulted in his co-authorship of the book “Geology and Petrology of the Galápagos Islands.” He also authored the “Volcanic History of Nicaragua” and translated the German-language book “Fire in the Sea: The Santorini Volcano: Natural History and the Legend of Atlantis” into English.

Following NASA’s Apollo missions, McBirney and his colleagues studied rocks returned from the moon. They also studied trace elements in meteorites and terrestrial igneous rocks and led groundbreaking field studies of Greenland’s Skaergaard intrusion, a crystallized magma chamber now exposed through erosion.

McBirney was founding editor of the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. In 1990, he received the Bowen Award from the American Geophysical Union in recognition of his lifetime contributions.

McBirney’s contributions were recognized last week during the second annual Volc-OR conference organized by the group Volcanology Students of Oregon. The event attracts graduate-level volcanology students from the UO, Oregon State University and Portland State University.

McBirney is survived by his wife, Carmen, daughters Christine of Eugene and Anne of France, and several grandchildren. He was preceded in death by two sons, Martin and Richard.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications