Hess, Harry Hammond, 1906-1969

Alternative names
Birth 1906-05-24
Death 1969-08-25

Biographical notes:

Harry Hammond Hess, the son of Julian S. and Elizabeth (Engel) Hess, was born in New York City on 24 May 1906. Hess received a B. S. degree from Yale in 1927 and then went to Princeton to pursue a Ph.D. in geology (1932).

Through the years, Hess held an assortment of positions, primarily academic, relating to geology. After completing his degree at Princeton, he taught at Rutgers University for one year (1932-1933), and assisted with research in the geophysical laboratory in the Carnegie Institute of Washington, D.C. (1933-1934). In 1934, Hess joined the Princeton teaching faculty-gaining full professorship in 1948-a post he would maintain until his death. At Princeton, Hess served as the chairman of the Geology Department (1950-1966), and was the sixth Blair Professor of Geology (1964). In addition to his teaching at Princeton, Hess spent two years abroad as a visiting professor at Capetown University, South Africa (1949-1950), and Cambridge University, England (1965).

While a graduate student, Hess began research in the fields of marine geological and geophysical studies by measuring the earth's gravity field aboard a U. S. Navy submarine in the Caribbean. Hess was given a commission as lieutenant in the U. S. Naval Reserve as a means to facilitate his work on Navy subs during subsequent trips. When called to active duty during World War II in 1941, Hess was initially assigned to enemy submarine detection in New York City. He created a successful system to predict German submarine location and kept the New York waterways safe. Hess then went on to other assignments in the Pacific, including landing at Iwo Jima. While traveling on the "Cape Johnson," Hess conducted echo-sounding surveys and discovered submerged, flat-topped seamounts between Hawaii and the Northern Mariana Islands. He named his seamounts discovery "guyots," in homage to the founder of the Princeton geology department and the first Blair Professor, Arnold Guyot. After being discharged in 1946, Hess remained active in the Naval Reserve, gaining the level of rear admiral in 1961.

With the assistance of Princeton, the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, several oil companies, and the governments of Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Colombia, Hess established the Caribbean Research Project in 1947. As a result of this project, Caribbean geology was investigated extensively, particularly by graduate students, who used their data as the basis for their Ph.D. dissertations. Hess also proposed the Mohole Project (1958), which had the objective of drilling a hole through the ocean's "Moho," the Mohorovicic seismic discontinuity separating the mantle of the earth, to take core samples, and he originated a theory of ocean-floor spreading and continental drift (early 1960s).

Hess's interest in rocks was not confirmed to the earth: He was the chairman of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences (1962) and a collaborator with several committees of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (1963), including being involved with the first moon landing, which occurred only one month before his death.

In keeping with his varied scientific interests, Hess was a member of innumerable committees, societies, and organizations relating to geology, oceanography, and space science. Furthermore, he authored many articles and book chapters on these subjects.

Hess died of a heart attack on 25 August 1969, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, while presiding at a Space Science Board conference. He was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. Hess was survived by his wife of 35 years, Annette (Burns), and their two sons, George Burns and Frank Deming Mather.


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Ark ID:


  • Geology--20th century
  • Geology--Study and teaching--20th century
  • Geology--Field work--20th century
  • Seismology--Research--20th century
  • Continental drift
  • Geologists--20th century
  • Geology--Research--20th century


  • Geologists
  • Professor


  • Caribbean, 02, CU
  • New York City, NY, US
  • Princeton, NJ, US
  • Woods Hole, MA, US