Henry J.B. Dick '65: Journey to the Center of the Earth

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Henry Dick ’65

When Henry Dick ’65 was a student with dyslexia and ADHD, these conditions were poorly understood, if they were recognized at all, and not many people understood how his differences could become his strengths. Henry persisted in his education, buoyed by caring and inspiring teachers, and came to earn a BS at the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in geology at Yale University. Now a leading marine geologist and one of the most cited scientists in marine geology in the world, he has honed his ability to use and trust the creative way he thinks. As a result, Henry has reshaped a body of knowledge on how the earth forms itself with his discovery of a new category of oceanic ridge.

As a graduate student Henry hiked the Kalmiopsis wilderness area of southern Oregon, mapping unusual rocks that were once part of the earth’s mantle, from beneath the earth’s crust. He theorized that they formed at an ancient island arc rather than beneath a mid-ocean ridge—as was widely believed. These ideas were not well received, and the resulting controversy sent Henry on a quest that led to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, where he gained the resources to collect rocks from the modern ocean ridges. They really were different, as he had suggested. After much time at sea, his studies led to new ideas. He focused on two daunting areas that seemed likely to be very different from typical ocean ridges, due to the extreme slowness with which seafloor spreading occurred: the Gakkel Ridge under the icy Arctic Ocean, and ridges beneath the tumultuous southern ocean around Antarctica.

Henry found that new seafloor formed at these ridges exposes huge areas where the earth has no crust. The slowly rising mantle beneath the plates cools too much to allow much magma to form. Thus, unlike faster-spreading ridges, little lava erupts. Instead solid mantle rock is pulled up from deep in the earth and fills the void between the spreading tectonic plates, a finding that surprised the scientific community. This 2001 discovery is creating a small revolution in earth science, and it was Henry’s intuitive thought process, characteristic of dyslexics, that led him to explore unusual places and discover a new class of ocean ridge. “I’ve always remained controversial,” he says. “I’ve always been contrary, and marched in the opposite direction from my colleagues. Perhaps that’s why I have been so lucky.” Henry was awarded the Van Allen Clark Chair for Excellence in Oceanography at Woods Hole in 1992, and was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of America in 1996 and of the American Geophysical Union in 1999.

When not at sea, Henry spends time at home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, with his wife, Winifred, and children Helene, 16, Spencer, 13, and Lydia, 11. An active member of his community, he was elected a town meeting representative, and has taken leadership roles in several conservation groups. In his quest for life beyond science, he notes that “One of my great privileges was to be a Big Brother to several boys on the Cape and to serve on their board for many years.” He was named Big Brother of the Year for Cape Cod and the Islands in 1994.