What Were Harry Hammond Hess's Accomplishments?

by Kristen Marquette
As part of the Space Science Board, Hess worked with NASA.

As part of the Space Science Board, Hess worked with NASA.

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Best known for his theories and research with plate tectonics, Harry Hammond Hess (1906 to 1969) held many titles in his life, including renowned geologist, professor, war veteran and rear admiral. He was also a husband to Annette Burns, the daughter of a botany professor, and a father to two sons.

Sea-Flooring Spreading

In 1912 Alfred Wegener developed the continental drift theory that all the continents were once a single supercontinent but broke apart, forming the continents and oceans as presently seen on Earth. In 1960 Hess made perhaps the most important contribution to earth sciences when he refined the concept of sea-floor spreading, which explains how the entire continents can move without destroying the sea floor. He gave scientific credence to the continental drift theory, a theory that "A Princeton Companion" indicates is generally accepted by the scientific community today.

Miltary Accomplishments

In the 1930s Hess joined the US Naval Reserve where he eventually rose to the rank of rear admiral. In 1941 the Navy called him to active duty where he came up with a successful method for devising the daily location of enemy submarines in the North Atlantic. As commander of the U.S.S. Cape Johnson, an attack transport, he was part of four major landings, including two at Iwo Jima. While out at sea, he used the ship's sounding gear to map a large area of the Pacific Ocean and discovered underwater flat-topped seamounts.

Academic Accomplishments

Hess earned his bachelor of science degree in geology from Yale in 1927 and his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1932. He worked as an instructor at Rutgers University and as a research associate in the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. In 1934 he became part of the Princeton faculty, then the chairman of the geology department and finally the sixth Blair Professor of Geology in 1964. A few months before his death in 1969, Yale bestowed upon him an honorary degree, Doctor of Science.

Other Accomplishments

Hess received much recognition by other scientists. They elected him to the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences. He was an invited member of foreign geological societies in London, South Africa and Venezuela, as well as the Academia Nazionale dei Lincei, the oldest academy of science in the world. In 1966 the Geological Society of America honored him with their most prestigious award, the Penrose Medal. He also won the Feltrinelli Prize that same year, the first earth scientist from the Western hemisphere to do so.

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