Geologist, oceanographer and archaeologist Tjeerd Hendrik van Andel led a diverse career that he once described as “a journey full of unexpected detours, none of which I regret.”

1/27/1981 Tjeerd Van Andel, Professor of Geology.

Tjeerd van Andel was remembered as an energetic professor who knew “how to make something difficult in science easy to understand.” (Image credit: Chuck Painter / Stanford News Service)

Van Andel used sea-floor sediment data to describe historical climate change, led the first submersible dive to map the Atlantic sea floor and was the first person to lay eyes on deep-sea hot springs. Later in life, he headed an international and multidisciplinary study to reconstruct the landscapes experienced by Neanderthals in Europe.

Van Andel, a Stanford professor emeritus of geology and geophysics, died of heart failure Sept. 17 in Cambridge, England. He was 87.

“He was blunt, tough and enormously energetic,” said his wife, Dr. Kate Pretty, principal of Homerton College, Cambridge, in a eulogy. But Van Andel also had a lighter side.

“He had a wicked sense of humor and would laugh until he cried at Monty Python,” she said.

“He would get into some pretty serious laughing fits over that show, and my brother and I would always be amazed to know that such a serious person could let go like that,” said Van Andel’s son Jeff.

His humor was well appreciated by his students at Stanford and his geology courses were popular even with non-majors. “He would light them up. He was funny,” said Pretty. He knew “how to make something difficult in science easy to understand,” she said.

An early fascination with the past

Van Andel was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 1923. His father was a psychiatrist and his mother a doctor and child psychologist. He and his sister, Mies, spent part of their childhood on the island of Java, where their father worked for the Dutch Indonesian Service. Van Andel’s long-standing fascination with the past began among the Javan Hindu temples he visited with his father.

Van Andel studied geology at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, where he earned his doctorate in 1950. His graduate work on Rhine sediments led to a position as a sedimentologist for Royal Dutch Shell in Amsterdam and later in Venezuela before he moved to the United States in 1957. After 10 years at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Van Andel moved to Oregon State University, where he headed the Division of Marine Geology and Geochemistry in the School of Oceanography.

During this time, Van Andel helped organize large-scale international scientific projects that explored the relatively unknown ocean floor. From the sediment core samples collected by the Deep Sea Drilling Program, which began in 1964, researchers were able to uncover secrets of ocean sea-floor spreading and bolster theories of plate tectonics. The CLIMAP project, which mapped historical climate change and helped form a base for recent climate change studies, began collecting sea-floor sediment data a few years later.

In 1974, Van Andel led the first dive to the Atlantic floor in the submersible Alvin as part of the French-American Mid-Ocean Undersea Study. The FAMOUS project played a major role in scientists’ understanding of plate tectonics and continental drift.

Life at Stanford

Stanford offered Van Andel a professorship of oceanography in the Geology Department in 1976. He later added professor of geophysics and professor of human biology to his diverse collection of titles. At Stanford, he continued his deep-sea expeditions that would lead to his most famous discovery.

In 1977, Van Andel traveled into the depths of the Galapagos Rift off the coast of Ecuador in the 22-foot-long deep submersible Alvin in search of the deep-sea hydrothermal vents that many earth scientists predicted to exist. He was accompanied by two others: a pilot, Jack Donnelly, and another scientist, Jack Corliss, his former advisee. Nearly 2 miles down, the team made the first direct visual observations of hydrothermal vents on the sea floor, populated by surprising numbers of mollusks, fish and other marine animals.

“He came back very excited about that,” recalled Gordon Brown, professor of geological and environmental sciences. Brown also remembers stimulating lunchtime discussions, aided by Van Andel’s conversational skill, about the unexplored mysteries of the sea floor. “He really had an ability to dissect a conversation and look at all sides of issues,” said Brown. “He’d look at you with his pipe in his mouth, looking like he was really thinking about what you were saying, and he usually was.”

A collaboration with Stanford archaeologists brought Van Andel back to his early passion for the landscapes of the historical past. He became co-director of Stanford’s Archaeological and Environmental Survey of the Southern Argolid in Greece in 1978 and launched his career as a geo-archaeologist. “His archaeological work that took off while he was here at Stanford turned out to be as large, at least on the scientific stage, as his oceanographic work,” said Jim Ingle, professor emeritus of geological and environmental sciences.

Both Brown and Ingle described Van Andel as a renaissance man. Gourmet cook, artist and writer were among his many non-scientific talents. In 1985, Van Andel authored New Views on an Old Planet, a popular survey of earth history. It is “an outstanding book that could be read by lay people as well as specialists,” said Brown. “I could give it to anybody and know they would enjoy reading it and get a tremendous insight into how this planet evolved.”

Van Andel was active in the Stanford community during his 11 years on campus. He served as chairman of the Academic Council’s Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid from 1980 to 1984 and the Committee on Graduate Studies from 1980 to 1985. He retired from Stanford in 1987, but his loyalty to the campus did not change even a decade later: In 1997, Van Andel rebutted the idea that Stanford was a “rich kid’s university” in a letter to The Independent in London.

Retiring to a busy life in Cambridge

Although he retired from Stanford in 1987 to join the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge, he by no means slowed down. At Cambridge, he continued his research in geosciences and geo-archaeology. There, he led an international and interdisciplinary project whose aim was to model the landscapes known to the Neanderthals of Europe.

Van Andel received the Francis P. Shepard Medal in Marine Geology in 1978 and the Van Waterschoot van der Gracht Medal from the Royal Netherlands Geological Society in 1984. He was elected as a fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 1980 and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1981. He was named the Wayne Loel Professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford in 1984. He also was a member of the California Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences.

Van Andel is survived by his wife, Dr. Kate Pretty; daughters Charlotte Bialek, of Princeton, N.J.; Barbara Caselli, of Ashland, Ore.; and Carolyn Miller, of College Station, Texas, from his first marriage to Elsa Dekking; his sons Chris of Menlo Park and Jeff of Sunnyvale from his second marriage to Marjorie Rojahn; and eight grandchildren.

A service was held for Van Andel in Cambridge, England, on Sept. 30. A memorial is planned for the spring of 2011 in Cambridge.

Susan Young is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.