Skip to main content
COLLECTION Identifier: HUGFP 132.xx

Papers of Francis Birch

Francis Birch was a pioneer in the study of geophysics, a participant in the Manhattan project, and an advisor on public policy matters involving geophysics, especially the disposal of nuclear waste. His papers document the breadth of his work in research, consulting, teaching, and his relationships with colleagues and scientific societies.


  • 1897-1992


Conditions Governing Access

Access may be restricted. Consult reference staff at Harvard University Archives for details.


6.9 cubic feet (21 boxes)


Albert Francis Birch, the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology, was a pioneer in the study of geophysics in the United States and a founder of its study at Harvard.

He was born on August 22, 1903, in Washington, D.C., the son of George Albert Birch and Mary Clayton (Hemmick) Birch. After attending the public schools there and graduating from Western High School in 1920, Birch entered Harvard and earned the S.B. degree in Electrical Engineering magna cum laude in 1924. He worked in the Engineering Department of the New York Telephone Company from 1924 to 1926, and then was awarded an American Field Service Fellowship to work in the Institut de Physique at the University of Strasbourg, France, where he studied the magnetism of metals under Pierre Weiss and was a junior author on his first published papers. In 1928 Birch returned to Harvard and earned the A.M. (1929) and Ph.D. (1932) degrees in Physics. Working under Percy W. Bridgman, who had developed experimental techniques to study the properties of materials under high pressures, he studied the properties of mercury. Reginald A. Daly, then the Sturgis Hooper Professor, was interested in applying these techniques to the study of geologically important materials because they might simulate the conditions of the Earth's interior. In 1930 Bridgman, Daly, and several other professors had formed an interdepartmental program to coordinate their efforts. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences formally established this as the Committee on Geophysical Research in 1931. After finishing his thesis in 1932, Birch was appointed Research Associate in Geophysics.

During the 1930s, Birch developed experimental techniques and theoretical models to compare the experimentally determined properties of known materials with the seismologically and gravitationally revealed properties of the unknown materials of the Earth's interior in order to draw conclusions about its structure and composition. In 1937 he was promoted to Assistant Professor of Geophysics. When the United States entered World War II, Birch took a leave of absence from Harvard and was commissioned as a Naval Reserve Officer. He served as a staff member of the Radiation Laboratory at M.I.T., working with the Bureau of Ships on the development of proximity fuses. He then worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, where he headed the engineering and development of the Hiroshima bomb. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for this service.

In 1945 Birch returned to Harvard to resume his academic work. He had been promoted to Associate Professor of Geology in 1943 while on leave, and he was promoted to Professor in 1946. In 1949 he was appointed to the Sturgis Hooper Professorship. He chaired the Committee on Experimental Geology and Geophysics, as it had been renamed, from 1949 to 1965 and chaired the Department of Geological Sciences during the creation of the Hoffman Laboratory of Experimental Geology, which opened in 1963.

Birch published over 100 papers, from laboratory reports on the properties of materials at high pressures and temperatures and field studies of heat flow to theoretical analyses of the composition of the Earth's interior. He served as President of the Geological Society of America in 1964 and was honored with the Society's Day and Penrose Medals, the Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union, the Vetlesen Prize of Columbia University (with Sir Edward Bullard), the National Medal of Science, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Great Britain, and the Bridgman Medal of the International Association for the Advancement of High Pressure Science and Technology. He was elected to numerous scientific societies and was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Chicago and Harvard. Birch assumed emeritus status in 1974 but continued his research and published papers on the properties of crystals into the 1980s. He died on January 30, 1992, at his home in Cambridge.


  1. 12129 October 15, 1990 Francis Birch
  2. 12337 December 23, 1991 Geological Sciences Library
  3. 12523 August 17, 1992 Mrs. Francis Birch
  4. 12576 November 6, 1992 Mrs. Francis Birch

Inventory update

This document last updated 2016 July 12.
Birch, Francis, 1903-1992. Papers of Francis Birch : an inventory
Harvard University Archives

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

Pusey Library
Cambridge MA 02138 USA
(617) 495-2461