William Cromie, 1930-2014

A geologist who traded a life of adventure for a highly successful career as a Harvard science journalist has died

June 5, 2014

William Cromie was born on 12 March 1930 and grew up in Queens, New York but ran off to sea at the age of 15. When a shipping strike put him out of work in 1950, he enrolled at Columbia University on a newly established programme for talented people who had never finished high school, and in 1956 – after a break for the Korean War – he became the programme’s first graduate in geology. He initially worked within the US as a uranium prospector in Colorado, and in the gold and copper mines of Montana, before venturing to the ends of the Earth.

In Antarctica, for example, Mr Cromie crossed the whole of the Ross Ice Shelf to carry out seismic and glaciological research and even had a peak named after him. In the Arctic, he spent several months exploring the ocean floor while drifting towards the North Pole in a lab built on a melting ice floe. Yet he also worked in far warmer climes such as the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, notably as oceanographer and first officer of a three-masted schooner called the Vema.

In 1960, however, Mr Cromie reinvented himself as a journalist when he became a fellow on a science writing programme at Columbia. He went on to cover the manned space programme and the Mohole Project, which tried unsuccessfully to drill a hole through the crust of the Earth. He produced a number of books including Earthquakes (1962), Exploring the Secrets of the Sea (1964), Volcanoes (1965) and Skylab: The Story of Man’s First Station in Space (1976). He also served as executive director of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

A return to the academy followed in 1987, when Mr Cromie became a Knight science journalism fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then editor of the MIT Report magazine. He moved to Harvard University to write science news stories for the Harvard Gazette from 1989 until retirement, at the age of 77, in 2007.

Notable for distilling even the most complex findings into lucid and gripping prose, Mr Cromie was much admired by his scientific colleagues. One of the university’s most distinguished scholars – Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino university professor emeritus in entomology – described him as “a brilliant journalist and a credit to Harvard’s media”.

Mr Cromie died on 2 April and is survived by his son Steve and two grandsons.


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