Harvard professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Richard J. O’Connell passed away April 2 after a three-year battle with prostate cancer. O’Connell was an American Geophysical Union and American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow and a recipient of both the Inge Lehmann Medal and Arthur L. Day Medal. He was 73.
“Rick was a remarkable scientist and kind person. While his scientific accomplishments are far ranging, he was perhaps best known for his work modeling convection of the Earth’s mantle, a process driven by heat in the interior that governs plate tectonics,” John H. Shaw, chair of the EPS department, wrote in an email.
O’ Connell received a B.S. in physics, an M.S. in geology, and a Ph.D. in geophysics all from the California Institute of Technology. He came to Harvard as an assistant professor in 1971, and served as a professor of geophysics since 1977. He also directed the Center for Earth and Planetary Physics at Harvard from 1983 to 1986.
According to EPS professor Jerry X. Mitrovica, “[O’Connell] was a source of incredible knowledge and insight into the field.” Mitrovica described him as a scholar who was driven by curiosity and a gentleman with “a quick, dry, hilarious sense of humor.”
Colleagues said O’Connell not only left an impact on the future of his academic field, but also touched the lives of those who interacted with him.
“He was a person who always had time. His office door was always open, to both his colleagues and his students,” Mitrovica said. “He spent a significant amount of his time listening, laughing, giving advice, mentoring, and not just to scientists, but also to freshmen who came to Harvard not knowing what they wanted to do…. Students gravitated towards him as a mentor.”
“I hope Harvard understands what it’s lost,” Mitrovica added.
O’Connell also left a positive impression on his students. Sarah A. Moon ’15, an EPS concentrator who took O’Connell’s introductory course—The Dynamic Earth: "Geology and Tectonics Through Time"—described O’Connell as a professor who truly cared about undergraduates.
“He was always just so friendly and wonderful, and always willing to talk about your work or whatever else,” Moon said.
A note from his wife Susan and children, Brian and Lily, announced O’Connell’s passing and detailed plans for a memorial service planned to be held on May 2 at 4 p.m. in Boston’s King’s Chapel.
“We hope that when you see mention of Montana, or watch a sailboat tacking across the bay, or hear a particularly insightful scientific question posed, you will think of our ‘Cowboy Rick,’” O’Connell’s family wrote in the note. “[We hope] that the memory will bring a smile to your face, and you will consider raising a glass to a good friend, colleague, father, and husband, who brought joy to all our lives.”
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