Astrobiology (general)

In Memoriam: Heinrich (Dick) Holland (1927-2012)

By Keith Cowing
September 5, 2012

The NASA Astrobiology Program mourns the death of Dick Holland, treasured colleague and forefather of astrobiology.

Dick Holland died May 21, 2012 in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, just short of his 85th birthday. He was born in Mannheim, Germany and spent his early years there before coming to the U.S. in 1940. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry (with high honors) from Princeton University in 1946 at the age of 19, served in the U.S. Army, then entered graduate school at Columbia University in 1947, receiving is master’s degree in 1948 and Ph.D. in 1952, both in geology. At Columbia he worked with Laurence Kulp as part of a remarkable group of graduate students who went on to become leading figures in geochemistry. He served on the faculty of Princeton University from 1950 to 1972, rising from the rank of instructor to full professor. In 1972 he moved to Harvard, where he later became the Harry C. Dudley Professor of Economic Geology.

In 2006 he ‘retired’ from Harvard and became a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained active in research and writing until his death. During his career he held visiting appointments at the Universities of Oxford, Durham, Hawaii, Heidelberg, Penn State, Imperial College, London, and the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and his numerous awards included the V.M. Goldschmidt Award of the Geochemical Society, the Penrose Gold Medal of the Society of Economic Geologists, and the Leopold von Busch Medal of the Deutsche Geologische Gesellschaft.

In the 1950s and 60s geochemistry blossomed, with the advent of various isotopic techniques and the application of quantitative physical chemistry to geologic problems. Holland’s earlier work was focused primarily on understanding ore deposits in the context of physical chemistry. He published two major papers (1959 and 1965) on the applications of thermodynamic data to problems of hydrothermal ore deposits and numerous papers, both experimental and theoretical, on the stabilities of carbonates and other minerals. His work on ore deposits continued throughout his career but became gradually displaced by his interest in the chemical evolution of the ocean and atmosphere. His 1962 paper ‘Model for the evolution of the Earth’s atmosphere’ (in Petrologic Studies: A volume to honor A.F. Buddington, Geol. Soc. Amer., pp. 447-477) established the idea of a progressive change in the Earth’s atmosphere from highly reducing to highly oxidizing. Over the years in books (The Chemistry of the Atmosphere and Oceans, 1978; The Chemical Evolution of the Ocean and Atmosphere, 1984), book chapters (e.g. The Geologic History of Sea Water, 2004; The Geologic History of Sea Water Revisited, 2008; both in The Treatise on Geochemistry) and numerous papers, he established the paradigm that is now the conventional wisdom: an early atmosphere that was reducing followed by a ‘great oxidation event’ about 2.3 billion years ago in which oxygen levels rose to approximately their present-day values.

He continued to refine his ideas on controls on atmospheric oxygen, particularly the role of nutrient cycles, in a series of papers, the latest of which appeared in EPSL in 2012. In addition to his modeling, he and his students and colleagues conducted several studies of Precambrian paleosols as indicators of the oxygen content of the atmosphere. He wrote (with Ulrich Peterson) a popular undergraduate text ‘Living Dangerously,’ which addressed questions of resource depletion and environmental degradation. He and Karl Turekian were also responsible for conceiving and bringing to fruition The Treatise on Geochemistry. Dick was always ready to discuss his science and try out new ideas on students and colleagues alike. His manner was always mild and good humored, but his arguments were always rigorous. He loved a debate and did not give in easily.

On a personal level, Dick was a devoted family man and developed deep personal relationships with his many students-he even hosted weddings at his home and served as ‘father of the bride’ for several of us. He will be deeply missed both for his contributions and for his warmth as a human being. [Source: NAI]

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻