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Speed, Robert C.



Robert C. Speed was born on June 20, 1933 in Los Angeles, California.  From a very young age he had an affinity for the outdoors and enjoyed hiking and climbing in various mountain ranges of the American West.  With this exploration and curiosity began a pattern of seeking out physical and intellectual challenges that would continue throughout his life.

He received his B.S. in Geology from the University of Colorado in 1954, and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Geology from Stanford University in 1958 and 1961, respectively.  From 1954 to 1957, he served as a pilot in the U.S. Navy with the rank of lieutenant, flying missions in Korea and surrounding areas.  From 1961 to 1966 he worked at the California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory, focusing on experimental planning for unmanned and manned exploration of the Moon, and, later, of the planets.  According to geologist Richard Sedlock, in the Geological Society of America Memorials, v. 33, April 2004, "[Speed's] thorough understanding of the interplay of chemistry, physics, mineralogy, petrology, and geophysics was critical to the development of planetary geology—a term not even in use at the time."

In 1966 he came to Northwestern University as Assistant Professor, becoming Associate Professor in 1969, Professor in 1974, and William Deering Professor of Geological Sciences (an endowed chair) in 1991.  He was also Department Chair from 1981-1983.  At Northwestern University, Speed focused on tectonics and structural geology, first with a focus on the Western United States (mainly Nevada) and later on the eastern Caribbean (mainly Barbados, Trinidad, and Grenada).  He became an international leader in his field, with an emphasis on active continental margins, and he published widely.  According to Sedlock, Speed's studies in Nevada, "profoundly influenced our perception of the geology of the western Great Basin."  His research there led him to a similar structure on Barbados where the work he produced over decades became, "basic reading for anyone studying fossil or modern accretionary prisms anywhere in the world."

He was also very active in providing hands-on, field work experience to both undergraduate and graduate students.  He was known to be a supportive, passionate, demanding, and loyal teacher and mentor, who was consistently able to draw out the best in his students.  His dedication to collaborative student learning continued with the Integrated Science Program (ISP): an honors major in the Northwestern University Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.  The ISP was centered around an intensive study of advanced mathematics, and emphasized the interrelatedness of core principles and techniques across varied natural science disciplines.  Speed was chair of the panel that designed and implemented the program, and he served as its initial Director from 1975-1979.  He also served as Director of the Environmental Sciences Program from 1996-2000.  Speed was active in the wider geology community as well, serving on panels and boards for organizations such as NASA, the United States Geological Service, the Geological Society of America, and the Ocean Drilling Program.

After retiring in 2002, he moved back to southern California, continuing to work through an Adjunct Professorship at the University of California at Irvine.  Just days after making his last field research trip, he passed away at his home in Newport Beach, California on September 18, 2003.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Robert C. Speed (1933-2003) Papers

Identifier: 11/3/14/13

Structural geologist and geophysicist Robert C. Speed (1933-2003) taught at Northwestern University from 1966 to 2002. His work focused on tectonics, structural geology, and active continental margins, mostly in Nevada, Barbados, and across the Caribbean. These papers document Speed's research, fieldwork, publications, and teaching life.

Dates: 1848-2003