Barclay Kamb, 1931-2011

Barclay Kamb, 1994.

“I have just read an article about time by Hsü in PNAS.  I have not been able to understand it all.  However, he thanks you, so perhaps sometime when you come to the ranch you can explain his ideas to me.”

-Linus Pauling, letter to Barclay Kamb, December 3, 1992.

Geologist and former Caltech Vice President and Provost W. Barclay Kamb died on April 21 at the age of 79.  Caltech has published a nice remembrance of Kamb, which is available here.

Kamb, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, was a particularly distinguished scholar of the Antarctic who made many significant breakthroughs in his studies of the structure of ice and the nature of glaciers.  His influence on polar studies is evident in many ways; glacial researchers today make use of the Kamb-Engelhardt Hot Water Drill, to list one example, and an Antarctic ice stream was, in 2003, named the Kamb Ice Stream in his honor.

Barclay Kamb was also Linus Pauling’s son-in-law, and it is through this prism that we share a bit more about his life.


Kamb, a San Jose native who then went by the surname of Ray, entered Caltech at the age of 16 in 1948.  He completed his physics degree in 1952 and went on to obtain a Ph. D. in geology in 1956.  It was during his graduate years that Kamb caught the eye of Linus Pauling – Kamb’s doctoral adviser, under whom he was investigating the structure of zunyite – who thought very highly of the young scholar.  So highly, in fact, that he and Ava Helen began hatching a plan.  Biographer Tom Hager writes

From the moment [Linda Pauling] arrived [home from a trip to Europe], they threw her together as often as as long as possible with a favorite graduate student of Pauling’s, a handsome and brilliant young geologist named Barclay Kamb.  By the summer of 1957, Linda had settled down:  She was living at home, making money by assisting [Robert] Corey at Caltech, and occasionally cooking dinner for Kamb, who was, Pauling was happy to note, ‘hanging around our house quite a bit.’  The matchmaking worked.  On a beautiful day in September 1957, Pauling walked across the front lawn of his Sierra Madre home with Linda on his arm, in front of two hundred guests, and delivered her to Barclay Kamb – now a Caltech assistant professor of geology – for the purpose of marriage.

Linda and Barclay Kamb, 1957.

Pauling and Kamb quickly developed a very close relationship that was further cemented by their shared passion for scientific inquiry.  In 1990 Pauling nominated Kamb for the M. J. Buerger Award in crystallography, and in his nomination letter he quipped

He is recognized as having extraordinary ability.  When I get stuck on a problem, I go to him for help.  He is my son-in-law, so he finds it difficult to turn down my appeal.

Indeed, in reviewing their lengthy correspondence, it is overwhelmingly evident that science was a frequent topic of conversation between Pauling and his son-in-law.  The duo published seven papers together, on topics ranging from the effects of strontium-90 on mice, to the structure of lithiophorite to resonating valence bonds in hyperelectronic metals.  And in their letters, countless additional topics are explored from melting points in metals to an investigation of pseudobrookite.

Linda and Barclay Kamb, 1963.

In addition to his scientific acumen, Pauling admired Kamb’s writing skills – “Your ability at writing in a clear manner is so unusual that it would be a terrible waste if you did not write some good books,” Pauling opined in 1961 – and on multiple occasions enlisted his aid in the revision of both of his legendary texts General Chemistry and College Chemistry.  Many years later, in 2001, Kamb would serve as lead editor for the two volume set, Linus Pauling: Selected Scientific Papers.

Amusingly to the contemporary reader, Pauling also commandeered his son-in-law’s services – and title – for the more pedestrian task of fighting the construction of a trail that the Forest Service planned to build near his property.  “Perhaps you could write to him,” Pauling requested, “signing your letter as Professor of Geology and Geophysics, and saying that you have observed this trail in its relation to the beach 300-foot stretch along the cliff…where there is an absence of shrubbery that would prevent rocks from falling onto the trail.”

We leave it to Tom Hager to describe the fallout from a different and much more important cliff-related incident – during which Linus, at age 59, famously spent the night trapped on a ledge overlooking the Pacific Ocean – that once again served as evidence of the close relationship between Pauling and Kamb.

When they found him at noon the next day, Pauling was emotionally shaken and physically exhausted.  But he swallowed all that – almost as a matter of habit…

On Monday morning, less than twenty-four hours after his rescue, Pauling walked into his office at Caltech.  The news of his disappearance had been carried nationwide on the news wires, and everyone in his research group had been worried.  Now they festooned his office door with a large ‘Welcome Back, Dr. Pauling’ banner, and one of the secretaries baked a cake decorated with a little toy man on a cliff and a mermaid in the water below.  There was a small cheer when he arrived.  Pauling looked at the cake, then, without a word to anyone, walked into his private office and shut the door.  The little crowd that had gathered to greet him was stunned.  A moment later, a sheet of notepaper was pushed under the door; it was a request from Pauling to cancel his class and all other appointments.

No one knew quite what to do.  Pauling’s son-in-law, Barclay Kamb, was as close to him as anyone; he was called in, and the situation was explained to him.  Kamb knocked softly on Pauling’s door, then went inside to talk to him.  Something was seriously wrong.  Pauling seemed aware of his surroundings but unable to say a word.  Kamb decided to take him home.

Pauling did not say a word all the way back to his house and remained mute as Ava Helen put him to bed.  The trauma of the cliff episode had put him in a state of shock… When Linda visited with his new grandchildren, he began to cry.  It was the first time anyone had seen him emotionally vulnerable, in anything less than full control.

While Barclay was a great asset to Linus in many respects, it is clear that the father-in-law often served a similar role.  For one, it is worth noting that the Kamb family accepted Linus and Ava Helen’s invitation to move into the original Pauling family home in Pasadena once Linus left Caltech in favor of a position in Santa Barbara. The correspondence also indicates that Pauling acted as watch dog for Kamb in at least one instance, writing to express his indignation to an author of a paper on high-pressure ice forms who had neglected to adequately cite Kamb’s original research in the field. (The offender responded apologetically and issued a correction.)

In the main, it is clear that Linus Pauling’s overriding feeling toward Barclay Kamb was one of pride.  He was fond, for instance, of recounting a New Yorker article on flooding in southern California that referred to Kamb as “the smartest man in the world.”

Pauling family photograph, 1976.

And the fondness was clearly mutual, as perhaps best summarized by a handwritten letter penned by Kamb from his station at “Outstream Bravo” camp in Antarctica.  The letter is dated December 22, 1993, a point in time when Pauling was quite ill with the cancer that would claim his life eight months later.  In what Kamb conceivably could have regarded as a final communication with his father-in-law, he wrote with affection.

Here I am in the far south (latitude 83.5° S) doing my field work on the Antarctic Ice Sheet, but wishing I could be at home with Linda and able to come to visit you.  At times there is excitement and exhilaration here, and it is rewarding to me scientifically, but there is also a lot of plain hard work and a somewhat dreary existence.

One thing that I greatly miss during these long trips to Antarctica is the chance to discuss scientific subjects with you, which I so much enjoy when Linda and I come to visit.  This goes back many, many years, of course, and has been a great inspiration for me, and especially rewarding when we were able to produce joint papers as a result.  You have given me much good scientific (and other!) advice over the years, and I greatly appreciate it.  Particularly valuable to me was your suggestion that I work on the structure of the ice phases, which was a gold mine of interesting science.

…I am counting the days until I can get this job here done and come home to Linda, and I hope very soon after that we can come up to visit you.  I look forward to it very much…

Linda and Barclay Kamb with Lucile, Linus and Pauline Pauling, 1986.


For more insight into Barclay Kamb’s life and character, see this biographical text from “Welcome Barclay…Thank You Gene,” a Caltech Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences event marking Kamb’s assumption of the Division Chairmanship in October 1972.

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2 Responses

  1. May I express my most sincere sympathy to the family of my dear schoolmate, Barclay ! I will miss him soooooo………

    John T. Kuo
    Ewing and Worzel Professor Emeritus of Geophysics
    Columbia University

  2. Thank you for sharing that wonderful tribute to Barclay kam.
    With each story I learn more and am even more amazed with Dr Kamb my thesis advisor. They bring back a flood of more stories. Menories of mountain ski trips and field campaigns, of scary rescues in a whiteout with a crashed helicopter and a cracked up surging glacier…of working alone in a basement lab and his encouragement to press forward fontiers of scientific knowledge. He took the time to understand the problems we wanted to investigate and to advise us so we could solve problems. His mind was like a trap. He was well known for his delving questions that no one else could match.–, let alone answer. He was a joy to work with as we analyzed scientific research or pounded out new mathematical solutions to difficult problems. Barclay was such an inspiration. I wish I could have told him that more often, but he certainly knew it. Excellence was what he was all about. You can see it in all aspects of his life, including his family and his dedication mentoring at Caltech. I am so thankful to have worked with him and privileged to know his amazing family. My heart goes out to his wife Linda…she is also my inspiration – what a terrific wife and mother.. Best wishes and condolences to his beloved family.

    Sincerely
    Mindy Brugman

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