EERI Receives Groundbreaking Gift from Clarence Allen

clarence allen news The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) is deeply grateful to announce a groundbreaking gift from the renowned geologist Clarence Allen (M.EERI 1966), who passed away on January 21, 2021. Allen, a longtime EERI member who served on the Board of Directors from 1985-1987, was recognized with four of EERI's highest awards and honors during his lifetime: the Alfred E. Alquist Special Recognition Medal (1993), the Distinguished Lectureship (1995), the George W. Housner Medal (2001), and an appointment as an Honorary Member (2005). He was also the subject of the tenth volume of Connections: The EERI Oral History Series. Allen’s generous contribution of $800,000, a bequest from his estate, is the largest individual gift in EERI’s history.

“We are honored to receive this profoundly generous gift from Clarence Allen, who also gave so much of his time and professional insight to EERI over the years,” said Executive Director Heidi Tremayne. “His gift means he will continue to support EERI’s mission to deepen our understanding of earthquake risk and increase earthquake resilience in communities worldwide for many years to come.”

Allen was born in Palo Alto in 1925, and grew up primarily in California. He started his undergraduate studies at Reed College in Oregon in 1942, but left to serve for three years in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Second World War as an aerial navigator, an experience that deepened his interest in geography and geology. He returned to graduate with a bachelor's degree in physics in 1949, although his studies also left him with a longstanding interest in Northwest history. He then went on to Caltech to pursue a master’s degree in geophysics, which he received in 1951, followed by a Ph.D in geology, with a doctoral thesis focused on the San Andreas Fault. "Given my natural interest in maps, I just fell in love with doing geological work in the field," Allen said in a Caltech oral history. Although he taught and published widely, Allen’s passion for fieldwork—and the wide-ranging places it took him to study faulting systems and earthquake impacts, from Chile and Tibet to Turkey and Indonesia—remained at the core of his academic career. 

After spending a year as an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, Allen returned to Caltech, joining the faculty in 1955 as an assistant professor. He became an associate professor in 1959 and full professor in 1964. At the Caltech Seismological Laboratory, he worked with foundational members of the field like Charles Richter, Hugo Benioff, and Beno Gutenberg, but also formed part of a new generation of schoallen tibetlars working to bridge the gaps between geophysics and geology. His passion for fieldwork combined with his background in physics helped Allen become an early pioneer of the field of seismotectonics. Allen served as the interim director of Caltech's Seismological Laboratory from 1965–67 and was acting chairman of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences from 1967–68.

Allen’s lifelong passion for the outdoors, rooted in childhood camping and road trips with his family and youthful participation in the Boy Scouts, found expression in his hobbies as well as in fieldwork. “I was always intrigued by the fact that trout fishing and earthquakes seem to go together,” Allen observed in one of the interviews for his volume of the EERI oral history series, explaining how tectonic processes helped create the mountain stream habitats for the fish. “Clarence was a good friend and fishing companion as well as a professional colleague. We enjoyed many fishing trips together, including day trips to the local streams in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, but we also fished rivers in Yellowstone, Colorado and New Zealand. He was a very good fly fisherman—he would often point out features of the geology of where we were and I gained a lot of geological knowledge this way,” remembers Caltech Professor Emeritus Paul Jennings. 

Allen’s professional impact stretched far beyond the earth sciences. In the aftermath of the 1971 San Fernando Valley Earthquake, he became more deeply engaged in efforts to work across disciplines and fields to tackle the public policy and advocacy issues around seismic hazard, which also led him to build bridges with the engineering community. “What Clarence Allen said carried a lot of weight with those in the public policy arena, as well as the scientific and engineering communities,” recalled Lloyd S. Cluff, manager of the Geosciences Department at PG&E, in the introduction to Allen’s EERI oral history. Allen chaired the National Academy of Sciences Committee that studied the event and helped lead to the passage of the Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning Act in California in 1971. Allen also helped lobby for the formation of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), created 1977 to reduce the loss of life and property caused by earthquakes through improved design and construction, emergency preparedness plans, and education.

allen seismo lab“I have tried very hard over the years to improve the rapport between scientists and engineers, particularly with regard to establishing realistic seismic criteria for critical projects such as dams, aqueducts, and nuclear facilities," Allen stated in his oral history. “The blending of disciplines in pursuit of a major societal problem has been a very unique attribute of EERI, and I hope I have contributed to it. No other professional organization of which I am a member has the broad multidisciplinary base that EERI has.” Allen recalled how a particular point of pride in his career was the achievement of being elected independently to the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, both in 1976. Allen also served as president of the Seismological Society of America and the Geological Society of America, and was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

The EERI Board of Directors has appointed a working group to explore avenues for how best to use the funds to support EERI activities and programs and contribute to the broader needs of the earthquake engineering community. “EERI is committed to ensuring the best possible use of this gift in keeping with Clarence Allen’s commitment to interdisciplinary cooperation, and we look forward to sharing our plans for his gift with the membership in early 2022,” said EERI Board President David Cocke.

If you are also interested in giving to EERI, there are many different ways that you can support our mission as a donor—learn more here.

Photos: Clarence Allen; Allen speaks with Tibetan lama about past earthquakes on the Xianshuihe fault in 1986; Allen points out details of seismograph readings to graduate students at Caltech, 1978.