John W. Harbaugh, professor of geological and environmental sciences, emeritus, at Stanford University was at the forefront of using computers to simulate geologic processes. He served as chair of his department, president of the Stanford Historical Society and president of the Faculty Club. A long-time resident of the Stanford campus, Harbaugh died peacefully from natural causes on July 28 in Santa Barbara, California, at age 92.

Harbaugh at his computer in 1992, some 30 years after he began his groundbreaking research developing computer simulations of geologic processes. (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford Special Collections and University Archives)

“It’s rare enough when a scientist changes fields or areas of scientific focus, but even more extraordinary when such a change creates a new field. That’s what John Harbaugh did early in his career when he became a founding father of the field of geomathematics,” said Stephan Graham, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “In the ever increasingly data- and computationally-driven world of science, geomathematics and its related kindred, such as geostatistics, have become mainstays of Earth Sciences.”

During his career, Harbaugh was a founding member of the International Association of Mathematical Geology (renamed the International Association for Mathematical Geosciences in 2008) and helped create the geomathematics program at Stanford. He mentored over 40 master and PhD students and wrote over a dozen textbooks.

“I wasn’t quite lost at Stanford but I needed guidance, and John was the perfect person to give that because he was open to new ideas,” said Keith Kvenvolden, Harbaugh’s first graduate student. “One interaction with him led me toward my career as an organic geochemist. My life was such a small part of his but his was such a large part of mine.”

Ahead of his time

Harbaugh, the eldest of five children, was born Aug. 6, 1926, in Madison, Wisconsin. His father, an economic geologist, and mother, trained as a landscape architect, encouraged Harbaugh to explore both the imaginative and natural worlds.

Harbaugh graduated at the top of his high school class in 1944 and then enlisted in the V-12 Navy College Training Program. After a year at Denison University in Ohio, he transferred to the University of Kansas where he completed a bachelor of science in geology in 1948 and a master’s degree in 1950.

During travels through the Midwest and Rocky Mountain area, while working for the U.S. Geological Survey and Carter Oil Co., Harbaugh was introduced to Josephine Taylor. Following Taylor’s receipt of an undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma, they married in 1951.

In 1955, Harbaugh completed his PhD at the University of Wisconsin in geology and was offered a faculty position at Stanford University. At the beginning of his time at Stanford, Harbaugh was focused on field geology. In 1961, he was first exposed to the idea of using computers for statistical analysis of large amounts of field data and, within two years, he temporarily moved from Stanford’s Geology Corner to the Computation Center.

“He was ahead of his time,” said Johannes Wendebourg, Harbaugh’s former graduate student and two-time textbook co-author. “The actual simulations that he proposed really started only 20 years later when we had the computers to do it and today they are totally mainstream.”

In the 1980s Harbaugh and his students developed SEDSIM, a computer-based tool used by academia and by industry to simulate the erosion, transport and deposition of sediment over long periods of time.

Harbaugh co-founded the International Association of Mathematical Geology in 1968 and won its William C. Krumbein Medal in 1986. He served as vice president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and received its A.I. Levorsen Memorial Award in 1971, Distinguished Service Award in 1987 and Grover E. Murray Memorial Educator Award in 2001. In University of Kansas’s rock garden, an approximately 306 million-year-old limestone boulder is named the Harbaugh Rock in recognition of his fieldwork in Kansas and his contributions to mathematical geology. Harbaugh maintained a close relationship with his alma mater his entire life.

In addition to his research, Harbaugh contributed substantially to the Stanford community through many leadership roles he took on in his department and at the university level. He was especially fond of the 12 years he spent as faculty representative to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Equanimity, humor, fairness and integrity

Alongside his involvement in the Stanford Historical Society, Harbaugh put considerable effort into cultivating his own Tudor-style historical campus home, where he resided for some 62 years. His backyard featured a 1/20-scale model train traveling an estimated 150-feet of track. He wrote a history of the home for the society’s Historic Houses Project.

John W. Harbaugh (Image credit: Sunny Scott)

“John was a strong supporter of the Historical Society. I enjoyed catching up with him at programs and he always volunteered to help with our Historic House Tours,” said Laura Jones, director of Heritage Services and University Archaeologist at Stanford and former president of the Stanford Historical Society. “His own home was on tour twice, and the model railroad in his backyard was a major attraction. I think John really represented what it meant to be a contributing member of the unique campus community we have at Stanford.”

After retirement, Harbaugh spent much of his time traveling and building wood furniture. His family and friends remember him as a man of equanimity, humor, fairness and integrity.

“I cherish the times we spent sharing our interests in model railroading and early music. He was always fun to be around,” said Kvenvolden. “I feel so fortunate that I met him, that our research project at Stanford worked out so well and that our friendship has spanned so many years.”

Harbaugh’s first wife, Josephine, died in 1985. He is survived by his wife, Audrey Wegst of Fairview, Kansas, a health physicist whom he met while traveling in the fjords of Chile. He is also survived by his son Robert (and wife Kathy) of Santa Barbara, California; son Dwight (and partner Elizabeth Miller) of Palo Alto, California; son Richard of Redwood City, California; sisters Marjorie Bennett and Sylvia Rountree; brother Phillip Harbaugh; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Remembrances can be made to environmental nonprofit organizations (e.g., Peninsula Open Space Trust) or to educational institutions (e.g., Stanford, University of Kansas or University of Wisconsin general education fund). A memorial service will take place at Stanford Memorial Church Thursday, Nov. 14, at 2:30 p.m.

Media Contacts

Taylor Kubota, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-7707,