Tom Simkin, 75

Obituary: Tom Simkin: Smithsonian Geologist, Volcanologist

Tom Simkin, a highly esteemed scientist, had a long career at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.
Tom Simkin, a highly esteemed scientist, had a long career at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. (Family Photo)
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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tom Simkin, 75, a geologist who became a senior curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, died of esophageal cancer and sepsis June 10 at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.

Dr. Simkin began his Smithsonian career in 1967 at its Oceanographic Sorting Center, where he was involved in the inventory and distribution of deep-sea rocks and other materials. From 1972 to 2003, he was curator of petrology and volcanology at the Natural History Museum. Petrology is the study of rocks, and volcanology is the study of volcanic phenomena.

Since 2003, he had been a senior geologist and volcanologist in the museum's division of petrology and volcanology.

Dr. Simkin, who edited and compiled several books about volcanoes, was lead author of "This Dynamic Planet," a world map of volcanoes, earthquakes, impact craters and plate tectonics.

Thomas Edward Simkin was born in Auburn, N.Y., and grew up in Wallingford, Pa. He was a 1955 civil engineering graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He received a master's degree in geological engineering from Princeton University in 1960 and a doctorate in geology from Princeton in 1965.

He told The Washington Post in 1980 that he began his career as a civil engineer but became interested in geology "probably because I love climbing mountains." The article noted that, with his ponytail and beard, he resembled "a candle maker from Oregon" more than a scientist.

He kept the ponytail over the years and, among colleagues, became known for his Birkenstocks and his habit of biking to work from his home in Arlington County.

In 2004, the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior awarded him its first Krafft Medal for outstanding contributions to volcanology.

He was also a recipient of an award from the Virginia Museum of Natural History for lifetime contributions to science. The honor cited his founding and directing of the Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Program, which inventories volcanoes and their activity.

He was a former president of the Geological Society of Washington and a former member of Arlington County Parks and Recreation Commission.

Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Sharon Russell Simkin of Arlington; two children, Shona Simkin of Cambridge, Mass., and Adam Simkin of Arlington; a brother; and two grandchildren.

-- Adam Bernstein

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