In Memoriam: Kevin C. A. Burke, Ph.D., UH Professor of Geology and Tectonics (1929-2018)


One of the Greatest Proponents of Plate Tectonics and Mantle Processes

Dr. Kevin C. A. Burke, a world-renowned professor of geology and tectonics at the University of Houston’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences since 1983, passed away at his home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, on March 21, 2018.

Dr. Kevin C. A. Burke

He was one of the greatest proponents of plate tectonics and mantle processes in a career that extended over seven decades and influenced multiple generations of geoscientists on many continents. With Burke’s passing, a great life force has gone out, but his spirit will live on in all of us that he inspired.

Burke was born in 1929 and grew up in London, England, where he received both his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in geology from the University of London in 1951 and 1953, respectively. His Ph.D. study was a mapping and dating study of Barrovian metamorphic rocks and granites in the Connemara area of western Ireland.

From 1953 to 1972, he held a series of geology positions in teaching and research that included postings in Gold Coast, Ghana, the United Kingdom, Korea, Jamaica, and Nigeria. A critical junction in his career occurred in 1972-73 when he became a visiting professor at the University of Toronto. There, he became a close associate and mentee of Dr. J. Tuzo Wilson, who was one of the most prominent proponents of plate tectonics and hotspot studies at that time.

During his time in Toronto with Wilson, Burke began a lifelong study of hotspots, rifting, and mantle processes which was enhanced by his previous field experiences in Africa and the Caribbean.

Dr. Kevin C. A. Burke

In 1973, he was invited by Dr. John Dewey to join a faculty at the State University of New York at Albany which had assembled a distinguished group of geoscientists interested in the fledgling areas of plate tectonics, hotspot studies, rifting, and field-based ophiolite studies. During his 10-year residence in Albany, Burke produced many seminal papers on continental rifting, hotspots, Caribbean tectonics, and the effects of continental collision in Asia and other continental interiors.

In 1983, he joined the faculty of the University of Houston and also worked as director and associate director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute at NASA in Houston until 1988.

In the 1990s and 2000s, in addition to mentoring graduate students and teaching at UH, he held many visiting professorships at NASA, JPL, UCLA, Carnegie Institute, Oslo, and South Africa. He also served on many national committees, including the National Research Council, NASA, and the National Academy of Sciences.

His lifetime achievement awards include the Geological Society of America (GSA) Structure and Tectonics Career Award (2004); the Penrose Medal, the highest award of GSA (2007); and the Arthur Holmes Medal & Membership, one of the most prestigious awards of the European Geosciences Union (2013).

Burke is survived by a brother and sister, three children and two grandchildren.