Revelle, Roger Randall Dougan

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(b. Seattle, Washington, 7 March 1909; d. San Diego, California, 15 July 1991), oceanography, climate change, science policy, and public policy.

Revelle was a leading oceanographer of his generation. The scientific results of his midcentury Pacific expeditions called into question the prevailing view of a fixed and ancient seafloor. He championed measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide in 1956 and his subsequent work on climate change stimulated worldwide research on the topic. As a naval officer he helped formulate the navy’s postwar scientific research program. As an academic he was an institution builder who defined basic research in geophysics in the United States and secured the military and federal dollars to support it. His knowledge of the oceans broadened into an interest in resources and population. He worked internationally to foster policies that might achieve a balance of resources and population, especially in the developing world. His work in support of international cooperation made him a statesman of science.

Youth and Education Revelle was the son of Ella Robena Dougan Revelle and William Roger Revelle, an attorney and teacher. The family moved to Pasadena in 1917. Revelle was identified as a gifted student and was included in Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman’s study. Revelle received an AB from Pomona in 1929 as a student of Alfred O. Woodford. He entered the University of California, Berkeley, in 1930 as a graduate student in geology under George Davis Louderback and worked on problems of sedimentation. He married Ellen Virginia Clark, a member of the philanthropic Scripps newspaper family, on 22 June 1931.

In 1931, John A. Fleming, director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution, contacted Thomas Wayland Vaughan at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, requesting that Scripps examine sediment cores taken on the seventh cruise of the non-magnetic brig Carnegie. Vaughan consulted Louderback, who recommended Revelle for the work. Revelle moved to La Jolla, California, and registered for graduate work at Scripps.

Revelle’s analysis of the sediments in the Carnegie cores became the subject of his dissertation. He received a doctorate in oceanography from the University of California–Berkeley on 22 May 1936. Revelle’s sediment work was closely associated with studies of calcium carbonate sediments initiated by Vaughan and Haldane Gee and in studies of carbon dioxide and other substances involved in the buffer mechanism of sea water.

The Carnegie Institution funded the visits of many Scandinavian scientists to the Scripps Institution including Kurt Buch, Bjørn Helland-Hansen, and Harald Sverdrup. Revelle spent a postdoctoral year at the Geophysical Institute in Bergen, Norway, in 1936 and was introduced to the world community of geophysicists and oceanographers at the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics meeting in Edinburgh. These connections were important to Revelle’s career, and initiated his subsequent commitment to international science.

Revelle got his first seagoing experience on the small coastal vessels operated by the Scripps Institution. His experience in the deep Pacific began as a guest scientist on vessels of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and the U.S. Navy before World War II. In 1936 Revelle sought a commission in the naval reserve in order to increase his opportunities to go to sea. Beginning in 1937, he worked closely with Scripps director Sverdrup and led a major oceanographic cruise to the Gulf of California in 1939.

Naval Service Revelle was called for training duty as a sonar officer in February 1941. He was assigned to active duty at the U.S. Navy Radio and Sound Laboratory in San Diego. He conducted research on sonar performance and served as a liaison officer for the University of California Division of War Research. Revelle participated in surveys of oceanographic conditions in San Francisco Bay, Neah Bay, and in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. In October 1942 he was assigned to the Navy Hydrographic Office with a dual appointment to the Sonar Design Section, Bureau of Ships. He was the principal liaison officer between the navy and the National Defense Research Committee oceanographic division. Rear Admiral Thor-vald A. Solberg wrote in a letter to Carl Eckart in 1948 that “it is no exaggeration to say that the large role which oceanography now occupies in the Navy research program is in part due to Dr. Revelle’s effectiveness and foresight.”

Revelle was in Manila attached to the group planning the invasion of Japan when the atomic bomb ended the war. He returned to Washington and was one of a small group of officers who formulated the navy’s postwar policy with regard to oceanographic research. He planned and initiated the Oceanographic Section of the Navy Hydrographic Office and participated in planning for the Office of Naval Research (ONR). Historian Ronald Rainger credits Revelle with “fostering a powerful combination of military support and intellectual autonomy” within ONR (Rainger, 2001, p. 336).

Revelle was assigned to Joint Task Force One in 1946, the joint command that supervised the first postwar atomic test on Bikini Atoll, Operation Crossroads. He led the oceanographic and geophysical components of the operation. He studied the diffusion of radioactive wastes and the environmental effects of the bomb at Bikini. Revelle’s Crossroads team included Kenneth Emery, Gifford Ewing, Jeffery Holter, Henry Ladd, Walter Munk, and Allyn Vine. Revelle organized a second team that resurveyed Bikini in 1947. During the survey, cores were drilled from the atoll to a depth of 800 meters, which verified the theories of the origin of atolls proposed by Charles Darwin and James Dwight Dana. The resurvey team found evidence for intermittent submergence of the central Pacific floor throughout the last epoch of geologic time. Revelle’s experiences on Crossroads were invaluable in his later work as chair of the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Biological Effects of Atomic Energy committee.

Scripps Revelle was an imposing figure, six feet four inches tall with enormous flat feet that almost kept him out of the navy. He spoke with a low voice, low intensity, and low pitch, which commanded attention. He focused completely on whatever he was doing at the moment and he took on more than he could handle. These characteristics, combined with his wide-ranging interests and willingness to accept responsibilities did not foster a focused working environment.

Scripps director Harald Sverdrup was aware of Revelle’s shortcomings, but groomed him as his successor. They shared a vision of the Scripps Institution as a seagoing international oceanographic center and a commitment to international science, and they valued scientific brilliance over administrative acumen. While still on navy duty, Revelle helped Scripps acquire two mothballed federal vessels and ONR provided direct funding in support of seagoing research. When Sverdrup proposed Revelle as his successor, the senior Scripps faculty rebelled, citing his poor administrative skills. Revelle returned to Scripps in 1948 as associate professor and associate director for seagoing activities. He was soon promoted to full professor, but did not become director until 1950.

Under Revelle’s leadership Scripps became a large and powerful oceanographic center. When he left, Scripps had a fleet larger than that of Costa Rica. Beginning in 1956, Revelle took the lead to create a new campus of the University of California (UC) on land adjacent to the Scripps campus. While Revelle prevailed over opposition to a San Diego campus, it cost him support among university regents, and weakened his relationship with UC President Clark Kerr. In 1961, when he was passed over for chancellor of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), Revelle left Scripps. He returned briefly in 1963, but left again in September 1964, to become Richard Saltonstall Professor of Population Policy and first director of the Center for Population Studies at Harvard. UCSD named its first college, Revelle College, in his honor in 1965.

Plate Tectonics As director of Scripps, Revelle planned and led a dozen oceanographic expeditions to the Pacific including MIDPAC (1950), CAPRICORN (1952) connected with the thermonuclear IVY test, Downwind (1957), one of three Scripps International Geophysical Year (IGY) expeditions, and MONSOON (1960–1961), the first of several International Indian Ocean Expedition cruises. These expeditions yielded surprising results. Among the discoveries was the extreme thinness of deep-sea sediments, the similarity of heat flow on the ocean floor and in the continental region, the young ages of seamounts, and the occurrences of enormous fault zones. Revelle remembered these years as the greatest of his career in an August 1989 speech at Scripps: “In those heady days of the 1950s one could hardly go to sea without making an important, unanticipated discovery.”

With hindsight, the evidence was all there for proclaiming the doctrine of plate tectonics. Revelle later reflected, “we were not courageous enough, or perhaps smart enough” to make the leap (1987, p. 18). Scripps geologist Bill Menard agreed that the failure was one of vision, but added that scientists were so busy at sea accumulating data that they did not spend sufficient time analyzing it. “Many of us later had time to kick ourselves when earlier we had not had time to think,” Menard concluded (Menard, 1986, p. 298).

Climate Change Research Initially, Revelle’s interest in carbon dioxide was general and emerged from his early study of seawater chemistry and the carbon cycle. Rainger has written that Revelle’s interest grew during the postwar period, when he followed the work of Willard Libby and recruited Harmon Craig and Hans Suess at Scripps. In the late 1950s Revelle and Suess proposed that the ongoing industrial revolution should yield a signal detectable within decades with profound implications for climate change. Surprisingly, it was detected within a few years of observation.

During the planning phase for the IGY, Carl-Gustaf Rossby, Harry Wexler, and Roger Revelle advocated measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Revelle recruited Charles David Keeling in July 1956 to begin the first precise long-term measurements. Scripps became the principal center for the program, and Keeling’s new data demonstrated an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide that touched off a cascade of scientific investigation and a debate that continues to animate politicians and the public worldwide. Revelle used intentionally provocative language in the 1957 Tellus paper he wrote with Suess, calling it a “large scale geophysical experiment (pp. 19–20).” He was delighted that human activities could lead to measurable modifications which would provide improved understanding of atmospheric and ocean processes.

In 1977, Revelle served as chair of a fifteen-member Energy and Climate Panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences to assess the possible consequences of carbon dioxide buildup on climate and agriculture. In 1979, Revelle and other scientists prepared a report for the Council on Environmental Quality on the greenhouse effect. During these years, Revelle was a key player in climate change research and worked tirelessly to bring the issue to the attention of scientists and science policy bodies. He recalled at the end of his life that his longest continuous involvement with any subject in science had been with oceanic and atmospheric carbon dioxide. It was this work that was recognized by the Tyler Ecology Award and the Prix Balzan.

Environment and Population In 1961 Revelle chaired a study of soil salinity in West Pakistan at the behest of presidents John F. Kennedy and Mohammad Ayub Khan. The study resulted in an increase in agricultural production in the region. As first science adviser to the secretary of the interior, Revelle counseled Interior Secretary Stewart Udall to back Rachel Carson in her dispute with the chemical industry. Revelle’s work on population and resources at Harvard deepened his commitment to the developing world. Al Gore and Benazir Bhutto were his students at Harvard during this period. Revelle was a lifelong advocate of the use of earth resources for the benefit of humanity; he focused on the achievement of sustainable development. He advocated nuclear power in lieu of burning of fossil fuels. Thus while Revelle discussed and fostered environmental policy, he was not an environmentalist. He felt that scientists, not the public, should investigate and resolve scientific issues and that the best science policy grew out of consultations between scientists and politicians, not public advocacy groups.

International Science Revelle contributed to international cooperation in oceanography through service in scientific organizations. In 1946 he became a member of the National Research Council’s Pacific Science Board. He served on the Department of the Interior Arctic Research Advisory Board. He was a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Commission on Oceanography. In 1950, Revelle served as an officer of the Oceanography Section of the American Geophysical Union. He was chair of the Department of Defense Research and Development Board on Oceanography the following year.

In the late 1950s Revelle and other scientists affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science worked to found the International Oceanographic Congress (IOC). Revelle presided over the first one in 1959. One great project of the IOC was the International Indian Ocean Expedition, which was the genesis of Revelle’s great interest in the Indian subcontinent. In 1957, he organized the Special Committee on Oceanic Research (now the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research) of the International Council of Scientific Unions and became its first president. He worked closely with and through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) beginning in 1955 on projects, conferences, and discussions concerned with oceanography, economic development, population, food resources, and technology transfer. When UNESCO formed its International Advisory Committee on Marine Sciences in 1955, Revelle represented the United States. He was one of four oceanographers who fostered UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

Revelle’s work on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Oceanography and his growing reputation in science brought him into contact with Congress after Sputnik. He worked on legislation related to the sea, especially with Warren G. Magnuson. He was a member of the Advisory Panel on Science and Technology of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, later renamed the Committee on Science and Technology.

Revelle was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1957 and received the academy’s Agassiz Medal. He received the Bowie Award of the American Geophysical Union, and he was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1974. Just before his death, Revelle received the Medal of Freedom from President George H. W. Bush, in recognition of his lifelong achievement in science.


Revelle’s personal papers and records as Scripps director are at Scripps Institution of Oceanography Archives, UCSD. Mandeville Department of Special Collections, UCSD, holds Revelle’s records as chief campus officer at UCSD. Bureau of Ships, Record Group 19 and Hydrographic Office, Record Group 37 at the National Archives include material documenting Revelle’s naval career.


“Physico-chemical Factors Affecting the Solubility of Calcium Carbonate in Sea Water.” Journal of Sedimentary Petrology 4, no. 3 (1934): 103–110.

“Marine Bottom Samples Collected in the Pacific Ocean by the Carnegie on Its Seventh Cruise.” In Scientific Results of Cruise VII of the Carnegie during 1928–1929 under Command of Captain J. P. Ault: Oceanography. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication no. 556. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution, 1944.

With E. C. Bullard and A. E. Maxwell. “Heat Flow through the Deep-Sea Floor.” In Advances in Geophysics, vol. 3. New York: Academic Press, 1956.

With H. E. Suess. “Carbon Dioxide Exchange between the Atmosphere and Ocean and the Question of an Increase of Atmospheric CO2 during the Past Decades.” Tellus 9 (1957): 18–27.

“Report of the Committee on Oceanography and Fisheries.” In The Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation: Summary Reports.Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences–National Research Council, 1960.

“Carbon Dioxide and the World Climate.” Scientific American 247, no. 2 (1982): 35–43.

“How I Became an Oceanographer and Other Sea Stories.” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Science 15 (1987): 1–23.


Dorfman, Robert, and Peter P. Rogers. Science with a Human Face: In Honor of Roger Randall Revelle. Boston: Harvard School of Public Health, distributed by Harvard University Press, 1997. Appendix 3 includes principal publications of Roger Revelle.

Malone, Thomas F., Edward D. Goldberg, and Walter H. Munk. “Roger Randall Dougan Revelle: March 7, 1909–July 15, 1991.” Biographical Memoirs, vol. 75. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1998. Available from

Menard, H. William. The Ocean of Truth: A Personal History of Global Tectonics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Rainger, Ronald. “Patronage and Science: Roger Revelle, the U.S. Navy, and Oceanography at the Scripps Institution.” Earth Sciences History 19 (2000): 58–89.

———.“Constituting a Landscape for Postwar Science: Roger Revelle, the Scripps Institution and the University of California, San Diego.” Minerva 39 (2001): 327–352.

———. “‘A Wonderful Oceanographic Tool’: The Atomic Bomb, Radioactivity and the Development of American Oceanography.” In The Machine in Neptune’s Garden: Historical Perspectives on Technology and the Marine Environment, edited by Helen M. Rozwadowski and David van Keuren. Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2004.

Solberg, Thorvald A., letter to Carl Eckart, 22 March 1948, Records of the SIO Office of the Director (Revelle), Box 1, SIO Archives, UCSD.

United States. President’s Science Advisory Committee. Environmental Pollution Panel. Restoring the Quality of Our Environment: Report of the Environmental Pollution Panel, President’s Science Advisory Committee. Washington, D.C.: White House, 1965.

Weart, Spencer R. “Global Warming, Cold War, and the Evolution of Research Plans.” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 27 (1997): 319–356.

Deborah Day
Walter H. Munk

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