Frank Press

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Frank Press
Frank Press headshot.png
BSc Physics
MSc Geophysics
PhD Geophysics
BSc university City College of New York
MSc university Columbia University
PhD university Columbia University

Frank Press is an American geophysicist. Dr. Press received the SEG Maurice Ewing Medal in 1982.

Biography Citation for the SEG Maurice Ewing Medal 1982 [1]

Contributed by Cecil Green

Dr. Frank Press is recognized internationally, not only for his pioneering contributions to our basic knowledge in geophysics and oceanography, but also in lunar and planetary sciences. His authoritative research in seismology has revealed the usefulness of long-period surface waves and free oscillation in discerning the earth's structure from the crust to its deep interior. Fortunately, he has also been adept in combining theory and practice by aiding in the development of instrumentation for recording geophysical events, not only on the earth's surface, but also on the moon and other planets.

His wide spectrum curiosity has just naturally carried him across discipline boundaries which has naturally resulted in his broad capability as a true earth scientist with geophysics as a most important component. In addition to authoring 160 scientific papers, we are also impressed by his having co-authored a unique textbook now in its third edition, entitled EARTH, which provides a most interesting introduction to geology for beginner students as based on his geophysical studies.

Dr. Press' entire career, starting with his birth in Brooklyn, New York, in 1924, has been remarkably interesting and productive. After graduating in physics from the City College of New York, he then completed graduate studies in geophysics at Columbia University in 1949, at which time he joined its faculty, and by 1952 he became a professor during which period of time he became interested also in oceanography and, consequently, happily involved with Dr. Maurice Ewing, Founder and Director of nearby Lamont Geological Observatory. This was when had the pleasure of first meeting Dr. Press and, because of my early admiration for his capabilities as a scholar, was not surprised when in 1955 he was appointed Professor of Geophysics at California Institute of Technology and then only two years later, Director of its Seismological Laboratory.

Having followed this interesting series of assignments, to succeed retiring Professor Robert R. Shrock as Head of the M.I.T. Department of Geology and Geophysics. Dr. Press' creative and entrepreneurial talents then became completely visible as under his capable leadership the Department expanded into planetary sciences, oceanography, as well as interdisciplinary studies, while at the same time a joint graduate level program was launched with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. This broad spectrum of basic studies and related research resulted in a more appropriate name the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

It became increasingly likely that knowledge of Dr. Press' management skill and creative talents would soon extend beyond M.I.T. campus boundaries and so, not surprisingly, he was called to Washington, D.C. in 1977, first to serve as President Carter's Science Advisor and also Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and now as the newly appointed President of the National Academy of Sciences. During this same recent period of time he was appointed by M.I.T. to the prestigious position of Institute Professor, also to its Corporation and Chairman of the Advisory Committee to its Department of Physics.

By process of continual evolution, Dr. Press' notable reputation became known beyond our national boundaries and so it is not surprising that we find him also serving as a leader in international projects. Thus, he helped organize and give impetus to the International Geophysical Year, the first coordinated worldwide attempt to measure and map various geophysical phenomena--a decade long effort that also involved international explorations of Antarctica and the oceans. Mt. Press in Antarctica is named for him. His leadership extended also to research efforts in earthquake prediction in the United States, as well as via international cooperation, in Japan, the Peoples Republic of China and the USSR.

Of special interest to SEG members is Dr. Press' ever increasing appreciation of the merits of cooperation and cross-fertilization of ideas between academe and industry with the introduction of new measures to spur innovation by means of joint research ventures, which incidentally, help improve the scientific, as well as the practical bases for proposed government regulations.

As we would expect, Dr. Press is a member of several professional organizations in addition to the SEG. He is a past president of the Seismological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union. In addition to the National Academy of Sciences, he is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the French Academy of Sciences. He is also on the Boards of the Sloan Foundation and Rockefeller University.

Dr. Press' achievements have been recognized by his receiving twelve honorary degrees plus several professional honors, such as the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Arthur L. Day medal of the Geological Society and the Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union. Also, he has received Public Service Awards from the Department of the Interior as well as from NASA. So, it is not surprising that in a 1982 survey of American Leaders by the U.S. News and World Report Dr. Press was rated the most influential scientist.

In Summary--Dr. Press is indeed a uniquely important individual because of the impact of his scientific capability on the continued development of modern geophysics plus the direct influence of his personal leadership in national science planning and administration.

In all of these endeavors he has been steadfastly supported by a wonderful wife--the former Billie Kallick. They have two children and one grandchild. I feel sure that Dr. Maurice Ewing would join me in feeling very happy that Dr. Frank Press is being so greatly honored by our Society.

Biography Citation for SEG Honorary Membership 1972 [2]

Contributed by Milton B. Dobrin

When I was asked by Carl Savit to present this citation for Honorary Membership to Frank Press, I felt highly honored and personally gratified, as I have valued Frank's friendship ever since we were graduate students together many years ago. But I foresaw, correctly as it turns out, that I would have two problems. First, how could I ever do justice in the short time allotted for my citation to a man with so many outstanding accomplishments? And secondly, with so much that I would like to say, what would I leave out and where would I begin?

Consider, for example, Frank's contributions to the earth sciences as recorded by his publications. He has written 150 technical papers and is co-author of the classic textbook on seismic waves in layered media. He has made significant advances in such varied areas of geophysical research as the structure of the earth's crust and mantle, the constitution of the moon, earthquake seismology, and seismic-wave propagation.

Or consider his exceptional record of service in areas where science enters into public affairs. He was an advisor to the governor of California on atomic activities and a member of President Kennedy's (and later President Johnson's) Science Advisory Committee. Between 1959 and 1963, he represented the United States at four nuclear-test ban conferences in Geneva and Moscow, where seismological monitoring of atomic tests was a key issue. In this assignment he showed consummate skill in handling critical negotiations with formidable adversaries. As chairman of the Earthquake Prediction Panel of the President's Office of Science and Technology, he has a position of major responsibility in a program which could have enormous human benefits.

Frank received his doctorate at Columbia University in 1949 as a student of Dr. Maurice Ewing, another Honorary Member of the SEG. After six years on the Columbia faculty, he moved to Caltech, where he worked with Dr. Beno Gutenberg, one of the great pioneers of earthquake seismology, succeeding him as director of the Caltech Seismological Laboratory in 1957. Eight years later he took over his present position as Chairman of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Recognition for Frank's accomplishments began quite early in his career. In 1960, he won a $5,000 prize as the California Scientist of the Year. Shortly afterwards, coincidentally I am sure, he bought a sailboat which he still uses. He has won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Great Britain and only two weeks ago the Arthur Day Medal of the Geological Society of America. In 1961, Mt. Press on the Antarctic Continent was named for him in recognition of his contributions to Antarctic studies. This is one of the most unusual distinctions that has come to any geophysicist.

Throughout his career, Frank has maintained a strong interest in exploration geophysics and he has made significant contributions in many aspects of this field. He actually began his work in geophysics with a summer job on a Gulf seismic crew at Liberal, Kansas in 1945.

Frank attained a position of leadership in the scientific world at an exceptionally early age. In 1962, his picture appeared in Life magazine as one of the 100 most important people under the age of 40 in the United States. A week short of 48, he is the youngest person to have been awarded Honorary Membership in the SEG since Everette Lee DeGolyer received it 42 years ago.

Frank's accomplishments are not limited to his scientific attainments. He is a skilled sailboat pilot; an authority on professional baseball and New Orleans-style jazz; a good husband who encouraged his gracious wife Billie to have a distinguished career of her own in education, even before the days of women's lib; and the proud father of two accomplished children, the older of whom has just received his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Caltech.

In awarding Frank Honorary Membership, the other members of the SEG honor themselves by association. By presentation of the plaque we show, in the best way we can, our recognition of all he has done for exploration geophysics.


  1. Awards Citations of SEG (1998) SEG Press, Tulsa, Oklahoma p. 4-5.
  2. Awards Citations of SEG (1998) SEG Press, Tulsa, Oklahoma p. 45.

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