Man has long been interested in his evolutionary history. Until Garniss Curtis came along, he wasn't sure how many candles to put on his own birthday cake.
Curtis, professor emeritus of earth and planetary science at UC Berkeley, died Dec. 18 in Orinda. He was 93.
Predeceased by his wife Dorette, Curtis is survived by his brother Ralston Curtis, daughters Penelope Curtis and Ann Curtis, son Robin Curtis, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Born in San Rafael, Garniss Curtis earned Bachelor of Science and Ph.D. degrees from UC Berkeley. He joined the school's geology faculty in 1951.
He gained prominence in the late 1950s using the then-revolutionary potassium-argon method to pinpoint accurate dates of young geologic rocks, and by extension, the fossilized remains within. Applying that process to Mary Leakey's fossilized finds in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Curtis and colleague Jack Everndon determined the relics to be 1.8 million years old -- roughly three times older than previous estimates of the oldest human ancestors.
"He was one of the earliest to apply this dating method," said Paul Renne, a student of Curtis' and director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center that Curtis helped establish after retiring from teaching. "He and Jack Everndon just took off and ran with it. He made a really big mark on the human evolutionary story. People who came to work with him made some of the biggest advances, and they credit Garniss."
Both Renne and Brian Hausback praised Curtis as someone who would just as soon give credit to others than take it for himself. They also recall him taking their classes on field studies in the Berkeley hills. Wearing tennis shoes instead of boots, decades older than his students, he moved nimbly through the undulating terrain like a mountain goat.
"Man, that was an incredible experience," said Renne. "He was so much fun. While the whole group of us students would be sitting at an outcropping of rocks, Garniss would already be on the next ridge over."
"He was a real field geologist," said Hausback, a professor of geology at Sacramento State. "He would always have his hammer, his satchel and his floppy hat in hand. He loved the finer things in life, and he also loved getting into the dirtiest volcanic ashy situation."
Penelope Curtis recalls being 6 years old and "imploring" her father to take her along on his class outings. When she got older, father and daughter took their own nature walks, with him teaching her to identify rocks, plants, wildlife and, at night, the constellations.
"He was my hero and my best teacher," Penelope Curtis wrote by email from Guatemala, where she was visiting. "I am an environmentalist because of those early years. I love history, archaeology, paleontology and anthropology because of the seeds he planted. I love classical music because we would spend time listening to various composers."
Garniss Curtis remained active long after his retirement. In the late 1990s, he and UC Berkeley geologist Carl Swisher made the groundbreaking discovery that human evolution occurred across multiple branches, and not a single, linear path.
"He lived through a period of major change in earth sciences," Hausback said. "His geology is very historic."
A memorial service is planned for the spring.
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/garyscribe.