Memorial Notice: William Van Dorn


William (Bill) George Van Dorn, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography research oceanographer and chairman of Scripps’ Ocean Research Division, will be celebrated at a memorial scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on June 23, 2017 at the Martin Johnson House on the Scripps campus (8840 Biological Grade, La Jolla, CA 92037).

Van Dorn passed away on October 1, 2016, in Seattle, Wash., a few days short of his 96th birthday.

Van Dorn’s research fields of interest included air-sea interaction, the dynamics of breaking waves, waves produced by explosions and undersea earthquakes (tsunamis), and control of sedimentation in estuaries. His background in oceanography included participation in most of the nuclear tests in the Pacific.

He developed a number of special devices and instruments for measuring oceanographic phenomena and acted as consultant and advisor to many federal, state, and corporate agencies. He was a member of several national committees concerned with environmental effects and public safety.

Van Dorn started his career in mechanical engineering. Before coming to Scripps in 1947, he worked with Northrop Aircraft and Aerojet Engineering Corporation. His experience with these organizations included stress analysis, research, design, and airframe and rocket testing.

In 1948 he developed a magnesium-rod release timer for a deep-current meter in a project for the Office of Naval Research. He earned his PhD in 1953 and continued on in a staff position. During the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), Van Dorn directed the Scripps program of wave recording in the island observatory project. He devised a long-period wave recorder for tsunami prediction, and he studied the pattern of the destructive tsunami at Hilo, Hawaii, caused by the earthquake of May 23, 1960, near Chile, and the tsunami caused by the earthquake of March 28, 1964, off Alaska.

In the mid-1960s, Van Dorn undertook a study of water circulation around various Pacific islands. He also made observations and measurements of breaking wave patterns in deep water by means of controlled studies in the Scripps Hydraulics Laboratory.

During his time at Scripps he worked as a senior engineer (1953-1963), associate research oceanographer (1963-1965), research oceanographer (1965-1979), and emeritus professor  (1979-2016). He was appointed chairman of Scripps’s Ocean Research Division on July 1, 1978.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1920, Van Dorn earned a BS degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and MS and PhD degrees in oceanography from Scripps through the University of California (1953).

Van Dorn was an adventurer in the modern sense. As part of his career, he spent years traveling around the Pacific Ocean visiting various islands in a series of adventures. This included research and modeling of tsunamis for the first hydrogen bomb test at Enewetak Atoll in 1952. Starting at Los Alamos, he contributed to the preparations for the expected tidal wave generated from the bomb test. And later, at Enewetak, he participated in the test with all its challenges. He describes this adventure in Ivy-Mike, his fictionalized account of the bomb test.

In addition to this book and his published papers, he also wrote, “Oceanography and Seamanship,” a comprehensive view of the oceans (tides, winds, circulation, etc.) for seamen of all types. This book enjoyed moderate success over time and could be found in some cruise line captain’s quarters.

One of his more interesting papers describes the formation of craters on the moon. His concept included the idea that large meteor impacts liquefied the surface and created waves of molten lava which solidified into the rings of mountains around the larger craters.

He made another significant contribution to research in the form of the Van Dorn Water Bottle, a device still used today around the world to collect water samples at various specified depths.

Along with his research pursuits, Van Dorn enjoyed an extremely rich love of classical and modern literature, music, and humor. His creativity extended to sophisticated home design and construction as well as appreciation of Spanish and French language and culture.

He is survived by his wife Jane and his children Richard Saxe Van Dorn, Carol Larratt Van Dorn, Lisa Lamarre, and by one grandchild, Siri Van Dorn Lamoureaux.

A transcript of an oral history interview with Van Dorn is available here:

— Information from Scripps files, Van Dorn family, and university archives

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