Loss of a giant in igneous petrology and volcanology

Emeritus Professor Alexander R. McBirney (Mac) passed away on Sunday April 7, 2019 following a stroke. He was 94 years old.

Mac’s arrival at the University of Oregon in 1965 marked a turning point in the trajectory of the Department of Earth Sciences when he and colleagues established the Center for Volcanology which put the UO on the global map of volcanology and petrology research powerhouses. Studies of the lunar samples returned by the Apollo missions soon ensued and were followed by experimental petrologic work on silicate phase relations and magmatic physical properties, studies of trace elements in meteorites and terrestrial igneous rocks, and classic field studies of the Skaergaard layered mafic intrusion in east Greenland and the volcanoes of the Galapagos Archipelago. Mac was also the founding editor of the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. He was a fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America, and was awarded the Bowen Award of the VGP section American Geophysical Union in 1990.

Mac was of another generation and will always represent for many of us one of the last of the golden age of exploration. He was a graduate of West Point and always (jokingly) prided himself on having been in the last class that had to demonstrate their prowess leading a cavalry charge wielding a sword on horseback! From there he took his young family to Nicaragua where he tried his hand running a coffee plantation that he and his crew literally hacked out of the jungle. It was in Central America where he happened upon the famous UC-Berkeley volcanologist Howell Williams who convinced him to leave the coffee plantation to others and join him in the Bay Area for his doctoral studies. Upon completing his dissertation, he found himself at Scripps Institution of Oceanography literally at the dawn of plate tectonic theory. When the University of Oregon came looking for the first members of the newly conceived Center for Volcanology, he answered the call, serving as the Center’s first director.

Mac would have been 95 had he reached his next birthday in July so, while his passing is certainly a loss to our community, it is not tragic. Indeed, I can’t help but see him in my mind’s eye, riding off into the sunset leading one last cavalry charge!


Dana Johnston
Emeritus Professor
University of Oregon