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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

by Sylvia Tiersten

"Roger Revelle dreamed of a university on the mesa. Then he fought to make it a reality."

Update: UC San Diego Mourns the loss of Ellen Revelle, wife of Roger Revelle

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Ellen Revelle, San Diego philanthropist and matriarch of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. Mrs. Revelle died May 6, 2009, at UCSD’s Thornton Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., after suffering a stroke. She was almost 99 years old. Ellen was the wife of Roger Revelle, the late legendary statesman of science and founder of UC San Diego, who passed away in 1991. With Ellen at his side for more than 60 years, Roger became a world-renowned scientist and is considered one of the pioneers of climate change research. For a video of more of their life together click here.


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Scripps Institute of Oceanography

More about Roger Revelle

Scripps Celebrates Roger Revelle’s 100th Birthday

Brief History of UCSD

Camp Matthews History

Scripps Timeline                                    

Remembrances of Revelle

Of my father’s five children, one was a university. It was always strange having a university for a sibling,” recalled William Revelle, the youngest son of oceanographer Roger Randall Douglas Revelle.

Revelle had actually not set out to father a university but rather create a graduate school of science and engineering. As director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography from 1951-1961, he was painfully aware that his students lacked adequate preparation in the basic sciences. “Our guys were very good seagoing scientists—but they were not very good physicists,” he said.

UCLA and its graduate science programs were a punishing 120 miles away. “Our students coming up as doctoral candidates were examined by committees appointed by the graduate dean at UCLA, and they rarely did very well,” Revelle recalled in 1974.

“Roger felt that any institution of oceanography that wasn’t a neighbor of a good basic university wasn’t going to make it—and he was absolutely right,” says oceanographer Walter Munk, Ph.D. (Scripps) ’47. “If you became isolated and didn’t participate in the new developments about genes and fundamental biology skills you would eventually fall behind.”

Revelle envisioned a kind of publicly supported Caltech, a school of science and engineering, adjacent to Scripps. But when the regents voted instead for a full-fledged research campus in San Diego, Revelle happily switched gears. He became nurturer-in-chief for the proposed campus, luring some of the country’s best and brightest scientists as start-up faculty.

Losing the Personal War

In championing the campus at La Jolla, Revelle encountered some naysayers along the way. His chief antagonist was a powerful regent and dedicated UCLA alumnus by the name of Edwin Pauley, who Revelle described years later as “a big, tough man and sort of a buccaneer. He had gotten very rich—primarily with oil properties in Mexico, and he also had very strong opinions. One of his opinions was that there shouldn’t be a campus in San Diego. What they should do was simply expand UCLA and Berkeley—make them bigger and bigger.”

The two men appeared to have irreconcilable differences. “Pauley was a powerful figure and expected people to bow down to him and show deference. I don’t think Roger was the kind of person who could do that,” says UC President Emeritus and former UCSD Chancellor Richard Atkinson.

The La Jolla site favored by Revelle provided 1,200 acres of San Diego City and Marine Corps land, proximity to Scripps, and spectacular ocean views. But Pauley had become intransigent in his opposition to a general UC campus in San Diego. He had proposed improbable alternatives, such as the hugely popular San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park, and managed to delay Board of Regents approval for a San Diego site— presumably in the hope that it would be shelved altogether.

In 1959, with the regents nearing final approval for the existing Torrey Pines Mesa site, Pauley threw another monkey wrench into the works. Citing architect Charles Luckman, Pauley warned that Navy jet noise from Miramar would add an exorbitant 10 percent to campus construction costs.

But Revelle had done his homework. Scripps Memorial Hospital was already under construction and he knew that the architect, none other than Luckman himself, was projecting a mere 4 percent cost addition for noise reduction modifications.

Pauley, needless to say, did not relish his cornered-rat status. Revelle got his campus in La Jolla, but at a cost. The regents voted 21 to 1 to locate the site in La Jolla, but Revelle had acquired enemies who made sure that he would never become chancellor. “It was a pyrrhic victory as far as I was concerned,” Revelle reflected in 1976.

The dust-up with Pauley was not the first time Revelle had offended the locals. “Members of the San Diego citizens’ committee of the local chamber of commerce that had sponsored the campus and been very instrumental in securing the land from the city and the Marine Corps considered Roger too radical in general—and several of them complained to me,” recalled UC President Emeritus Clark Kerr in his 2001 memoir, The Gold and the Blue.
Jim Archer, a former alumni regent from La Jolla and a partner at the law firm of Gray, Cary, Ames, and Frye, was still seething over Revelle’s opposition to the loyalty oath requirement for Scripps researchers. (The loyalty oath, with its anti-communist clauses, was particularly divisive during the McCarthyist era of the 1950s, when hearings conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities led to witch hunts and blacklists.) Tom Bond, the former provost of Revelle College recalled in an interview with this magazine in 2004, that Roger Revelle often showed his annoyance at these loyalty oath questions. He was at a La Jolla meeting in the 1950s when a woman asked, “Dr. Revelle, wouldn’t you be willing to sign a statement saying that you’re not a Communist?” Revelle is reported to have replied, “And would you be willing to sign a statement that you are not a prostitute?” This was not the way to gain friends in the conservative La Jolla of the 1950s. Nor was Revelle’s publicly stated strong disapproval of exclusionary real estate covenants that barred Jews and people of mixed race from renting or buying property in La Jolla.

In the early 1950s, Revelle had criticized the La Jolla Real Estate Brokers Association’s restrictive property deeds. “You can’t have a university without having Jewish professors,” he warned. “You’ll have to make up your minds whether you want a university or an anti-Semitic covenant. You can’t have both.” Neither Archer nor the property owners of La Jolla were happy with his stance and as UC President Kerr later said: “Archer was a terror when his sense of patriotism was aroused.”

And then there was the matter of Jonas Salk—a virtual folk hero and savior of America’s children with his development of the polio vaccine in 1955. Salk was planning a new institute in La Jolla and wanted land that Revelle believed had been allocated for the new university. The two men met one day in Jim Archer’s house and the dispute erupted into a shouting match. Kerr had to put Salk and Revelle in separate rooms and attempt—unsuccessfully—to negotiate a resolution.

Charles Dail, the mayor of San Diego at the time, had been a victim of polio and survived with a pronounced limp. “So when Salk came along, he just slathered with enthusiasm to give Salk anything he wanted,” Revelle recalled in 1985. “And what Salk wanted was some of the land people had voted to give to the University. I took a dim view of that.”

During UCSD’s start-up years, Kerr fielded a litany of complaints about Revelle’s non-business-like behavior. “The observations of Roger by the regents, as he presented budgets and other administrative affairs to the board, coincided with those of the members of the citizens’ committee and they were also supported by some longtime members of the Scripps staff who went out of their way in making comments to regents and to me, that Roger was disorganized,” Kerr recalled.

In light of these complaints and controversies, Kerr opted not to make Revelle chancellor. “Perhaps I could have pushed through Roger’s name, as Roger thought I could have and should have done,” Kerr wrote in his memoir. “I never counted all the votes among the regents, but it would have been an angry and drawn-out affair that would have affected the board’s consideration of many future aspects of campus development.”

The man who fathered UCSD—winning every significant battle along the way— had lost a very personal war. When the regents announced their selection of Herbert York as the University’s first chancellor in 1961, the community was shocked and Revelle was devastated.

“It was a terrible blow, naturally,” said Ellen Revelle several years later, recalling her husband’s disappointment. “The University was his baby and it was sad not to be chancellor of it.”

Revelle left La Jolla to serve as science advisor to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall from 1961-63. And in 1964, he accepted an appointment at Harvard, where he gained the admiration of an undergrad called Al Gore, who credited Revelle with kindling his passion for the environment (see page 7).

Top-Down Blueprint

“I’m a good guy at beginning things—but not necessarily a good guy at managing them after they’re begun,” Revelle reflected in 1976. “When it comes to knowing something about a lot of different things and being able to put it together and ask piercing or penetrating questions—that’s something that’s always been my specialty.”

During World War II, Revelle helped to establish the Office of Naval Research for the U.S. Navy. And during his directorship of Scripps, he put the institution on the map. “I did the same thing at Scripps that Prince Henry did for Portugal,” Revelle said. “He made it a world country instead of a little tip on the Iberian Peninsula.” By the time Revelle decamped for Harvard in 1964 to become founding director of the Harvard Center for Population Studies, La Jolla’s local field station had morphed into the world’s largest oceanographic institute—with multidisciplinary research projects and 12 seagoing vessels.

But his proudest achievement, Revelle often said, was the creation of UCSD. “It couldn’t have happened at any other time in history just like it happened,” he recalled in 1975. “Technology and science were riding high, there was plenty of money, people thought there were going to be a lot of people in California, and everything fitted together. We were just awfully lucky. But because we were lucky, we had to do something that was in some sense unique.”

Starting from the top and building down—or “building the roof first,” as Revelle put it, meant developing one graduate department at a time with first-rate researchers, critical mass and a good chance of attracting federal monies. “A graduate department can be narrow,” said Revelle. “It doesn’t have to cover the waterfront. The rationale is to attract students who are interested in those things you do well.”

 Science at the graduate level relied on recent journals rather than a substantial library of books that would take years to accumulate. Undergraduate education, which required a wide range of departments and courses, and a substantial library, would be phased in later.

Revelle’s blueprint called for staffing the humanities with working artists rather than art historians. Emphasizing creativity rather than criticism was yet another way to sidestep the need for a first-rate academic library.
Skimming the Cream
“San Diego was an instant success,” Kerr wrote in 2001. “It came to be one of the four American research universities that started out in the front ranks. The three others were Johns Hopkins in the 1870s, and Stanford and Chicago in the 1890s.” He felt that “the charismatic leadership of Revelle, who had a gift for identifying and recruiting academic talent,” had more than a little to do with the University’s meteoric rise.

Harold Urey, one of Roger Revelle’s first recruits, was a Nobel laureate in chemistry from the University of Chicago. Maria Goeppert-Mayer, another Chicago hire, would eventually win a Nobel prize in physics.

“Getting Urey and Mayer in the early days sent a message to the rest of the world that San Diego was the place to be and the best people were being recruited here,” says Atkinson.

Revelle’s raids on America’s established research campuses and laboratories became the stuff of academic legend. Three of his early hires—Jim Arnold in chemistry, Keith Bruckner in Physics, and David Bonner in biology—were formidable academic raiders in their own right.

“Chicago was a patsy to get people from, because the neighborhood had deteriorated so much that people were scared to walk the streets,” Revelle remembered. Bell Labs was also ripe for the picking. Working at the Labs precluded consulting elsewhere, but by matching the salary of a Bell Lab scientist, Revelle was actually opening the door to a pay raise. “If we offered someone $23,000, they could earn another $15,000 or $20,000 in consulting fees,” he said.

The courtship ritual for new faculty usually included a walk through the eucalyptus groves to a high point on the Torrey Pines bluffs. A toppled brick chimney marked the spot—a leftover from Camp Callan’s years as a military training base. Revelle would take prospective hires to this point, encourage them to stand on the chimney, and ask them to imagine what the future University would look like. “Some people could see what a wonderful campus we were going to have, and some people couldn’t,” said Revelle.
But smoke and mirrors were beside the point. Revelle’s personal magnetism ran deeper than that, says oceanographer Munk. “He had a genuine interest in people and what they were doing, and people respond to that. When Roger met someone he thought of as a possible professor, he made it a point to really learn and understand what that person wanted to do with his life and his work. Eventually he knew more about that person’s aspirations than the person did himself.”

UCSD Redux

Roger and Ellen Revelle’s La Jolla roots ran deep. Roger had arrived at Scripps in 1931 as a summer student intern in geology, with his new bride in tow. Ellen was named for her great aunt, Ellen Browning Scripps, a founder of Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The couple had left La Jolla in sorrow in 1961, but made a decision to return to UCSD in 1975 when Revelle was offered an appointment as a professor of science and public policy.
As a senior statesman for American science, Revelle continued to receive numerous awards, including the 1984 Vannevar Bush Award of the National Science Board and the Tyler Ecology Energy prize.

In 1986, Revelle moved to an oceanfront office at Scripps, where he worked until his death in 1991. Writing in the London newspaper The Independent on the occasion of his colleague’s passing, oceanographer Henry Charnock portrayed him as “a big man in earth science and a big handsome man physically. Revelle reckoned himself as a poorly educated and not over-bright geologist, but he seemed to know a lot. For an informed view on earth science and on its repercussion on the human predicament, he was in a class of his own.”

His widely read 1982 article in Scientific American, “Carbon Dioxide and World Climate,” informed and influenced the public on the greenhouse effect. When President George Bush awarded him the National Medal of Science in 1990, Revelle remarked to a reporter: “I got it for being the grandfather of the greenhouse effect.”

A father of UC San Diego, and a grandfather of environmental science. Quite a legacy.

Recalling Roger
Four Tritons sent us their remembrances of Roger Revelle. Their stories were all different and all fascinating. For full text of their memories go to alumni.ucsd. edu/magazine.

Raoul Wertz, Revelle ’88
I was a Revelle College undergrad in the late 1980s when I had the opportunity to drive Roger to a conference at UCLA. We set out shortly after dawn, and the first stop he first directed me to was his nearby, favorite donut shop.

Joyce Cutler-Shaw, M.F.A. ’72
In 1986, at a National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C., Roger announced to a group of dignitaries and renowned scientists standing around him that “now we will see Joyce Cutler Shaw’s exhibition.” He signaled me to join him and asked me to tell him about the work.

Ken Kvammen, M.S., SIO, ’50
Would Professor Revelle remember a struggling student of his from some 40 years ago?  Indeed he did!  He remembered my work in detail and wrote the most comprehensive letter to the retirement board.

Marjorie A. Parker, Revelle ’77
In 1975, I signed up for a class that Professor Revelle was teaching on appropriate technology for the Third World. Focused on the values of simplicity and pragmatic common sense, Professor Revelle taught us that the way to the future may actually derive from honoring the things of the past.

Sylvia Tiersten is a freelance writer who lives in San Diego.

"Of my father's five children, one was a university. It was always strange having a university for a sibling."