A. F. “Fred” Spilhaus Jr.
A. F. “Fred” Spilhaus Jr. Credit: AGU

A. F. “Fred” Spilhaus Jr., former executive director of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), died on 30 April at the age of 79. Spilhaus was executive director from 1970 to 2009.

Under his leadership, AGU experienced enormous growth and achieved numerous significant accomplishments. During his tenure, membership grew from 7,000 to more than 56,000, and the staff size increased from about 20 to 180. In addition, the organization’s net worth went from a negative number in 1970 to approximately $60 million by the end of 2007.

Spilhaus oversaw new publications such as Geophysical Research Letters, which was launched in 1974; the addition of new discipline sections; the 1975 initiation of small, single-topic meetings called Chapman Conferences; establishment of a fully electronic publication system; and tremendous growth of the annual AGU Fall Meeting, which in recent years has typically drawn more than 20,000 attendees. In addition, he collaborated with other scientific societies worldwide.

Spilhaus, who also served as editor in chief of Eos, joined AGU in 1967 as assistant executive director under the organization’s first executive director, Waldo E. Smith. At the time, Spilhaus was only a few years out of graduate school, having received his Ph.D. in physical oceanography in 1965 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Spilhaus said that he “had the best job in the world from 1967 to 2009.”

In 1996, Spilhaus was elected as an AGU Honorary Fellow in recognition of his lifetime of achievement on behalf of AGU; he is one of just a few people to have ever received that recognition.  In 2010, after his retirement, Spilhaus received the Waldo E. Smith Medal for “extraordinary service to geophysics.”

The citation for the medal noted in part, “For most of the past 40 years, Fred Spilhaus led AGU with dedication, creativity, and leadership, making AGU a model union and a strong integrating force and professional home for Earth and space scientists across the globe. That AGU is held in such high regard stems mainly from Fred’s insistence that the Union be inclusive of all Earth and space scientists and that scientific quality and integrity hold the highest priority. Fred also bequeathed to AGU long-term financial stability.”

In response to the citation, Spilhaus wrote, “The principles Waldo lived by, and which I tried to emulate, were (1) our scientific mission always comes first and (2) the members are AGU. AGU welcomes members of the scientific community worldwide. (3) By watching the pennies, we build the resources needed to serve in the future.” Spilhaus added that he “had the best job in the world from 1967 to 2009.”

Donations in Spilhaus’s memory may be made to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2018), Former AGU executive director A. F. “Fred” Spilhaus Jr. has died, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO098123. Published on 02 May 2018.

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