Karl K. Turekian

1997 Maurice Ewing Medal Winner

Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

The 1997 Maurice Ewing Medal, given for outstanding services to the marine sciences, was presented to Karl Turekian at the AGU Spring Meeting Honor Ceremony on May 28, 1997, in Baltimore, Md. The award citation and Turekian’s response are given here.


“Karl Turekian is one of the world’s most productive, widely known, and best-loved geochemists. In more than four decades and over 200 scientific papers and several books, Karl has laid the foundation for a vast array of geochemical topics in the Earth and ocean sciences through research carried out with unsurpassed insight, originality, dedication, and selflessness. Throughout this period, he has inspired students, nurtured colleagues, shown both wit and wisdom, guided journals, and given sage advice to every conceivable scientific body, all from a home base provided by his gracious wife Roxanne.

“Karl carried out his doctoral research on strontium geochemistry at Columbia University at a time when geology was moving, under the leadership of Maurice Ewing, from the main campus to the then new Lamont Geological Observatory. His work laid the foundation for the extraordinary widespread use of Sr isotopic ratios in uncovering Earth’s environmental history today. In 1956, he moved to Yale University, where he has since spent his entire professional career.

“Karl first tackled the problem of uncovering the rules governing the distribution of a wide variety of trace metals in the ocean and, although the sampling techniques of the time were often too crude to yield correct absolute values, his insights into governing processes were remarkable. In the 1970s, he became one of the leaders of the GEOSECS program that did so much to reveal for the first time the fundamental distribution of chemical properties in the ocean. Karl finds it almost impossible to go to sea himself, and he has only ventured out on the ocean twice to my knowledge! He went out once with Wally Broecker in 1961 on the Vema when Maurice Ewing first permitted geochemists aboard `his’ ship, and 13 years later on the Melville, with Harmon Craig as chief scientist, on the first leg of the GEOSECS Pacific Expedition.

“In the early 1970s, Karl became interested in the coastal ocean and the concept of estuaries as chemical reactors that modulate the passage of chemical elements from land to sea. He and his students made their patch of ocean, Long Island Sound, into a model for coastal studies the world over. The marvelous use of disequilibria in the short-lived radioactive nuclides of the natural U-Th series to reveal ocean processes in large part originated, and became highly developed, in his laboratory. In a series of papers remarkable for their breadth and virtuosity, this tool was applied by Karl and a steady stream of talented students to a host of original problems: scavenging, sediment accumulation rates, bioturbation, residence times, ocean circulation, and atmospheric deposition, all superbly revealed in the telling of the isotopic story by his laboratory. Karl’s most recent passion is the use of 187Os/186Os isotopic ratios to uncover extraterrestrial influences from the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary to interplanetary dust fluxes to the oceans.

“Karl has edited and guided our journals and has aided both young careers and august bodies. In doing so, he has given his time and his ideas with a world-renowned generosity. He radiates a love of science, and his contributions to the American Geophysical Union are both wide and deep. He joins the distinguished ranks of Ewing medalists as an inspirational world leader in the geochemistry of aqueous systems.”

—PETER G. BREWER, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing, Calif.


“Some of the most important things that happen to shape our lives are not planned but appear to be accidental. My enrollment at Wheaton College in Illinois was done at my mother’s bidding, before she would sign the papers that would allow me to join the Navy at age 17. World War II was on and that was where I felt I should be. My mother thought my interest in being a minister should be given a chance: before she would let me join the Navy, I had to go to college for a semester. That was her deal. She was good to her word. My life in the Navy as an aviation electronic technician’s mate third class convinced me that I would do more for the world by not becoming a minister. Whether the world is better because I became a marine geochemist is another question.

“It was Larry Kulp, an earlier chemistry graduate from Wheaton, who seduced me and a whole list of successive Wheaton students into coming to Columbia University. There he had started, as an instructor, a fledgling group in geochemistry. The Wheaton students who followed me to Columbia were Walter Eckelmann, Paul Gast, and Wally Broecker. It turned out that the year I arrived, 1949, was also the year that Maurice (`Doc’) Ewing started the Lamont Geological Observatory in Palisades, New York. Although many of the current Lamont activities stayed for a while at Schermerhorn Hall at Columbia (including the machine shop) within 4 years, we were all moved to the growing campus on the Palisades Sill.

“Ewing’s boys and the geochemists at first encountered each other on the touch football field at Lamont, but the effete geochemists encountering football pros like Jack Oliver and George Sutton quickly turned to volleyball as the sport of choice.

“Doc was pleased to see the geochemical arm of Lamont grow, but he was wary of geochemists going to sea on the Vema. Not until the winter of 1961 were Wally Broecker and I able to importune him successfully for that privilege. (By that time I was an associate professor at Yale and Wally was too, at Columbia). In a sense that expedition was a major incentive for the start of the Geochemical Ocean Sections Study (GEOSECS) program.

“My earliest seagoing experience, however, was working with Norman Newell and John Imbrie in the Bahamas in 1955 and 1956. We taught ourselves scuba diving in a hotel pool in Brooklyn and, armed with Jacques Cousteau’s book The Silent World, we explored the reefs and sedimentary deposits of the Bahama Platform and studied the minioceanography of Bimini Sound. This was the beginning of my interest in coastal oceanography.

“My education at Columbia and at Lamont specifically set the pattern of the way I behave. The knockdown seminars all Saturday afternoon, the relentless testing of each other’s ideas, and the head-on encounters with the rough gang from Chicago all shaped me and the other blooming geochemists.

“Naturally, I transferred my well-learned Lamont experience to genteel Yale when I arrived on the faculty there in 1956. It took a while for the great collision to show its effects, but thanks to remarkable students who have worked with me from the first day I arrived there to the present day, my life has continued to be fun. It has been a virtual scientific carnival for me. I would wish the same for everyone. The many undergraduates and graduate students as well as postdocs and visiting scientists have enriched my life considerably. The carnival could only exist because of them.

“All along the way I have been in the caring hands of my wife, Roxanne. When I told Wally Broecker and Paul Gast that I was waiting for a beautiful, intelligent girl of Armenian Protestant ancestry who would be willing to marry me, they calculated the odds and figured I was destined to bachelorhood. It is no surprise that they showed up at the church on our wedding day just to confirm this improbable event.

“As improbable as the event was, it resulted in two great children, both sources of joy and curiosity as to the workings of young minds.

“I don’t know if Maurice Ewing is turning over in his grave at the thought of another former Lamont marine geochemist (the first being Wally Broecker) being forever linked with his name, but I suspect not. One thing Doc had going for him was his broad view of the Earth. How else could he have made Lamont such a successful enterprise?”

—KARL TUREKIAN, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.