David Hilton, a geochemist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, died Jan. 7 at the age of 59 after a five-year-long battle with cancer.
Hilton’s research focus was on tectonics, the formation of planet Earth, and solid earth dynamics. He was an intrepid field researcher, traveling to remote and often dangerous volcanoes, islands, and terrestrial geothermal systems around the world to sample materials and collect data. Among his most recent field projects was an exploration of the East African Rift.
“He was always after that pristine sample,” said Alison Shaw, a former student of Hilton’s at Scripps and now a geochemist at Lorax Environmental Services in Vancouver, Canada. “The most pristine samples often required a field trip to a tropical country and an arduous hike up a volcano with a backpack filled with heavy sampling equipment. He truly loved sampling volcanic gases and once told me while sampling a particularly stinky, sulfur-rich fumarole that the smell was like home, like fresh-baked cookies.”
Hilton was highly respected in the fields of noble gases, stable isotope geochemistry, and volcanology. He was most well known for his investigations into helium and carbon characteristics in subduction zones and in mantle hotspots. His other areas of research included using noble gases in groundwaters and geothermal systems as indicators of recharge characteristics, flow history, and seismic activity.
“His work significantly advanced our understanding of how carbon moves through subduction zones and is recycled into the deep mantle,” said Tobias Fischer, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico and a frequent collaborator in the field with Hilton. “Dave understood how nature can expose her secrets through the emission of gases that are real-time and reliable messengers from the depths.”
He authored more than 100 publications in peer-reviewed journals and books. His work has been cited more than 6,000 times.
“As a supervisor, he was heavily involved and had very high expectations from all of his students, but once they gained Dave's respect and trust, he was fiercely loyal, supportive, and proud of their accomplishments,” said former student Peter Barry, now a postdoctoral research associate at Oxford University.
Hilton was also a prominent member of the Scripps community, having served as director of the Geosciences Research Division from 2012 to 2017. He also served on several committees that shape the direction and public image of Scripps.
Born in Bangor, Wales in 1958, Hilton joined Scripps first as a postdoctoral scholar in 1986, just after having received a PhD in isotope geochemistry from Cambridge University that year. He then spent several years at European research centers before returning to Scripps as a professor in 1996.
Hilton is survived by his wife Purnama and daughter Nia, his father, and two brothers. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, please consider donating to “science, education in STEM, or just have a good medium rare steak and a beer, and think of Dave while you do so.”
Burial took place Jan. 11 at La Vista Memorial Park in National City, Calif. A public memorial service is pending. Friends and colleagues are invited to send remembrances to email@example.com.
Tributes to David Hilton
"We feel very sad to hear Dave’s passing! He will be remembered as a wonderful and adventurous scientist, a noble human being, and a very good friend and colleague. Dave was a kind, patient, diligent and a very wise person, virtues which we are sure helped other people to grow and to become better human beings. Along with my wife, Raquel Negrete, and other Mexican and American researchers, we collaborated with David since 2014 in a reconnaissance heat-flow study in Baja California, using helium isotopes to uncover crust-mantle interaction in the Baja California peninsula. Dave’s knowledge not only played a crucial role in this fascinating study, but also served as a mentor to help us become better scientist in the field of solid earth dynamics. Along with his family and friends, we mourn the loss of such an exceptional human being, but at the same we feel blessed to have had the opportunity of getting to know him and to work alongside with him."
- Ronald Spelz, Facultad de Ciencias Marinas, Universidad Autónoma de Baja California
"Dave was an intrepid explorer of noble gases to the far corners of the planet. He often sought the difficult sample, and spent nights sleeping on the flanks of volcanoes, and in a truck stranded in the middle of a river in order to explain the distribution of volatiles in natural systems - or just to save a buck. His research on noble gases and carbon systematics in groundwater shed light on Pleistocene-Holocene climate change, crustal and mantle fluxes of volatile gases, and the temporal and spatial variability in groundwater helium-carbon relationships at seismically-active regions. Dave's quick wit and humorous yarns will be missed."
-Justin Kulongoski, U.S. Geological Survey (former student)
"David was a brilliant scientist and the comments to attest to that will be in the dozens no doubt. To me however, Dave was an adventurer with a relentless appetite for discovery. The work we did together in 2001 in Costa Rica was truly life-changing for me and even though I now live in a different world, it is still one of my most memorable and proudest achievements of my life. I think of it often and I refer to it regularly as part of who I am. Dave inspired me as a lover of science, made me more adventurous as a person and most of all, I considered him a friend with such a warm and open personality. I had the honor of meeting his wife and daughter on several occasions as well and you could feel how much love he had for them. Even though I haven't seen him for years, I miss him and always be thankful for his contribution to who I am."
- Wayne Suiter Matamoros, former webmaster, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
"David Hilton was a world expert in noble gas and stable isotope geochemistry with a keen interest in how volatiles are distributed in the Earth’s interior and move between the depths of the planet and its atmosphere and hydrosphere. He pushed the frontiers of this science by running a superb laboratory at Scripps where he trained students and post-docs to understand the significance of collecting the best possible gas and mineral samples followed by rigorous technique development and analytical work. His passion was field work on active volcanoes and hydrothermal systems. When getting ready for a sampling expedition to any corner of the world, he would always come extremely well prepared with many carefully evacuated gas flasks and copper tubes for capturing the gases and waters. In the field, he was always upbeat, very joyful as well as extremely patient. He endured 20-hour long strenuous hikes through the jungle (soaked to the bone) just to get to some gas vent for sampling. At the end of such grueling expeditions he would say “wow, that was great – I am glad it’s over” and he relaxed with friends to talk about it, embellishing on the encountered wildlife, extremely dangerous cliffs that had to be climbed down or roaring rivers that had to be crossed. Dave understood how nature is can expose her secrets through the emission of gases which are real-time and reliable messengers from depth. His passion to decode these messages took him to places like the extremely remote volcanoes of the Northern Mariana Islands that have not been sampled for gases before or since. He was passionate about understanding the variability of gas compositions through time and space and what that could tell us about the magma and the mantle at depth. Among many important contributions, his work significantly advanced our understanding how carbon moves through subduction zones and is recycled into the deep mantle. His work in the East African Rift on recently erupted lavas and tephras shows geochemically how a super mantle plume affects the break-up of continents. Dave’s ideas, talent, knowledge and passion for the volatile systematics of the Earth will be dearly missed."
- Tobias Fischer, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of New Mexico
"Dave was passionate about his job and loved nothing more than fieldwork; he was most content climbing a remote volcano to collect gas or mineral samples, or cranking away in his laboratory – pushing the limits of data quality! As a supervisor, he was heavily involved and had very high expectations from all of his students, but once they gained Dave's respect and trust, he was fiercely loyal, supportive, and proud of their accomplishments. He had a great sense of humor and was a very gifted story teller; he could captivate a room with one of his tales - often involving field work in some far-off corner of the world and always involving hilarity. His daughter Nia recalls one dinner in Turkey when a colleague went outside for a bit and Dave went on to tell a tale about a particularly shrewd teacher he had in primary school. As the colleague returned to the table, they said "Even though I couldn't hear the story, I couldn't help but laugh outside from just your reactions!" and Dave repeated the story to even more exuberant laughter. Dave was also passionate about football (soccer) and a lifelong supporter of Everton Football Club. In addition, Dave frequently enjoyed recounting (unsubstantiated) tales of his personal football greatness, taking particular pride in winning the 1983 Plates championship, while serving as captain of the Darwin College Football Club. He would not let it go unnoticed that he accomplished this remarkable feat at the same time as being the manager of the college bar."
- Peter Barry, Department of Earth Sciences, Oxford University (former student)
"I first met Dave in the mid-1990s in Berlin, where he was a postdoc and I was studying toward a Master’s. His work has been an inspiration for me ever since. We became friends later in life, in 2012, after following each other’s work for a while. He was a really classy guy, and I miss his humor a lot. We had big plans for collaborations which were cut short by his unfortunate struggle with cancer.
A lot of good could be said about him but much of it is private – he and I were both in love with Southeast Asia, where we share family ties in different countries. I am really sad about his passing."
- Florian Schwandner, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (colleague and friend)
"The death of David Hilton is a great loss for Scripps. He had an unusual combination of skills in professional capability with those in personal interaction, the latter due to his calm, yet firm extension of friendship and fairness in judgement. Dave will be sorely missed in the institution and by family and friends."
- Gustaf Arrhenius, Geosciences Research Division, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
"I was so saddened to hear of the passing of Dave Hilton, after such a long hard struggle against illness. He was a friend and colleague of my late husband Pete Burnard. We got to know Nia and Purnama too when they spent several months with Dave in Nancy, France, during his time working at CRPG.Our thoughts are with them and we will be making a donation in his name."
- Elspeth, Elinor and Callum Burnard
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