Waldo E. Smith was born on August 20, 1900, in New Hampton, Iowa. He attended the University of Iowa, graduating with Bachelor’s (1923) and Master’s (1924) degrees in engineering. Hydrology and civil engineering were his specialties. In the 1920s and 1930s, Smith worked as a professional engineer on hydraulic projects throughout the Midwest and taught on the faculties of the University of Illinois, North Dakota State College, and Robert College in Istanbul, Turkey. He joined the American Geophysical Union in 1936, affiliating with the Hydrology Section. A position with the U.S. Soil Conservation Service brought Smith to Washington, D.C., in 1940.
In the early 1940s the administrative duties of running AGU were still handled largely through volunteer labor. John A. Fleming, director of the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, had served as General Secretary since 1925 and had contributed long hours in correspondence, editing, and organizing meetings, with only a clerical assistant or two. With 2200 members by its 25th anniversary in 1944, however, the organization had grown too large to continue to manage without a full-time professional staff. In September of that year, Smith accepted an offer from Fleming to become the first Executive Secretary (and later, Executive Director) of the Union. For the next 26 years, he was omnipresent in AGU’s activities.
Smith’s business acumen, energy, and organizational skills well suited him for his executive responsibilities. He excelled as a consensus builder. Under his stewardship, AGU launched new scientific journals and monograph series and initiated its foreign translation program. Smith personally edited the Transactions for many years. He strove to advance the stature of the Union at home and abroad and served as Secretary of the U.S. National Committee for the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG). Contemporaries of Smith recall his phenomenal memory, especially his ability to recognize nearly all AGU members by name and face. He was genuinely interested in people and, through lectures at colleges and universities across the United States, helped guide the careers of many young geophysicists. By the time he retired in 1970, Smith directed a staff of 40 people, serving a growing organization of more than 10,000 members.
In 1982, recognizing that “there is more to doing science than doing science,” the AGU council created an international award in Smith’s name. Appropriately, the Waldo E. Smith Award is given for dedicated and extraordinary service to geophysics. The following year, the Executive Director Emeritus became the first recipient of his namesake medal. Smith’s professional legacy was summed up in his citation: “for over a quarter of a century AGU, American geophysics, and Waldo E. Smith were synonymous.”
Waldo Smith died at his residence in Washington on August 12, 1994.
—Shaun J. Hardy
Carnegie Institution of Washington