Cox, Allan, 1926-1987

Alternative names
Birth 1926-12-17
Death 1987-01-27

Biographical notes:

Professor of geophysics (1967) and Dean of the School of Earth Sciences (1979) at Stanford University.

From the description of Allan Cox papers, 1954-1987. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 703639461

Biographical/Historical Sketch

The son of a house painter, Allan attended high school in Santa Ana. He pursued his education through independent reading during 3 years in the merchant marine (1945-48), 3 years of undergraduate chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley (1948-51), and 2 more years of independent reading as a private in the U.S. Army (1951-53). The most important event in his education, and the one that helped him choose geology as a career, was a summer job with the U.S. Geological Survey in 1950 as a field assistant to Clyde Wahrhaftig in Alaska. Allan received his B.A. (1955), M.A. (1957), and Ph.D. (1959) degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was inspired by the teaching of John Verhoogen and Perry Byerly. He began his professional career at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, where he helped establish what was to become one of the most successful paleomagnetic laboratories in the country. From 1959 to 1967 he worked as a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey. In 1967 he joined the faculty at Stanford University, where he became Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Geophysics. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1969 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974. He became president of the American Geophysical Union in 1978. He received the Fleming Medal of the American Geophysical Union (1969), the Day Medal of the Geological Society of America (1975), and the Vetlesen Prize (1971). In 1979 he became the dean of the School of Earth Sciences. He was an author of over 100 papers in learned scientific journals. He established our Master's degree program in exploration geophysics, and was mentor to many students.

The essence of Allan Cox is a rare quality -- the ability and determination to bring out the very best in others. To a degree we've never seen in another person with his achievements, he had a most wonderful mix of personal humility with demanding standards, so that before a colleague knew what was happening, he or she was challenged into performing at a level not previously thought possible. And once that level was established those demands were never relaxed. The atmosphere was exhilarating.

His best-known research joined the paleomagnetism and radiometric ages of rocks collected from different parts of the world to find that before 700,000 years ago the geometric field had pointed south instead of north. Since the reversals were found to occur simultaneously everywhere, the polarity of the entire planetary field must have reversed. Together with his colleagues, by 1966 he had established a radiometric polarity time scale for the past 4,500,000 years and had concluded that polarity changes had occurred at an average rate of 5 reversals per million years. They found that the time intervals between successive reversals were highly variable in length, the shortest being less that than 50,000 years and the longest greater than 1,000,000 years.

He died January 27, 1987, in a bicycle accident near his home in Skylonda.

From the guide to the Allan Cox papers, 1954-1987, (Department of Special Collections and University Archives)


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Ark ID:


  • Geophysics
  • Plate tectonics
  • Paleomagnetism


not available for this record


  • China (as recorded)
  • Galapagos Islands (as recorded)
  • Galapagos Islands (as recorded)
  • China (as recorded)