Ruth Schmidt: Her brilliant career

PROWESS Honors Historic Earthquake Survivor

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

On dusty, yellowed index cards in the AAPG membership archives are handwritten notes that tell a partial story about some of the organization’s earliest members.

They have become precious insights to the Professional Women in Earth Sciences (PROWESS) Pioneer Women committee as it launches a series of biographies honoring the organization’s first 100 female members – leading up to its centennial in 2017.

And one of the cards belongs to Ruth A.M. Schmidt, the first to be featured in the celebratory countdown.

Living in Anchorage, Alaska, the 97-year-old former geologist was one of few female geoscientists in her day and proactively supported women choosing careers in science.

She also is a survivor – Schmidt is one of five scientists who were trapped on Portage Lake, 56 miles southeast of Anchorage, as it feverishly cracked, split, swelled and sunk during the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake.

After the quake she was instrumental in helping the city of Anchorage document the extensive damages in an effort to mitigate future risks in a politically charged atmosphere.

“As geologists, we are trained to learn from the past,” said Carol McGowen, AAPG’s manager of Sections and Regions and liaison to the PROWESS committee. “Learning from our predecessors as women geoscientists is equally important. These biographies will prove there is a lot to learn.”

Unable to personally share the highlights of her career because of health reasons, Schmidt is described as a passionate, no-nonsense scientist whose philosophies were typically on the cusp of forward thinking, said Sally Gibert, a land planner and geographer who met Schmidt in 1974. Working as a college intern for an environmental center in Anchorage, Gibert formed an unlikely bond with Schmidt over an overdue library book, which Schmidt checked out and promised to return “when someone else asks for it.”

“She was and is, even today, a powerful personality and very much to the point, but also very kind-hearted and very generous,” Gibert said in a telephone interview from Anchorage. “She was particularly interested in helping women in the field of science.”

‘One of the Boys’

After earning her master’s (1939) and doctorate (1948) degrees in geology from Columbia University, Schmidt worked for the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C., and in Anchorage. She also worked as a geology professor and served as the first chairperson of the geology department at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.

“She is a pioneer woman in the field of geology. There were virtually no women geologists until about the 1960s,” Gibert said. “In field camp situations, she said she simply acted like ‘one of the boys.’ Her strong personality far outweighed her small stature.”

Thrilled by international geological trips, Schmidt, who always kept a hint of her native Brooklyn accent, read and spoke German, a bit of French and studied Russian.

She was working as a professor at Anchorage Community College the day of the Great Alaska Earthquake – the most powerful earthquake to strike the United States and North America with a magnitude of 9.2.

It was March 27, 1964, when she and four others drove an Arctic Cat snow machine onto frozen Portage Lake to drill holes into three feet of ice to measure water depths. Schmidt wanted to determine the location and the rate of sedimentation in the lake from the Portage Glacier and other sources.

She brought with her an expert from the local U.S. Forest Service and three area students.

“A bunch of geology students and field trips are always a fun thing. They often have a bit of adventure to them,” said Mike Mitchell, a retired geologist and one of the students who assisted Schmidt on the surface of the two-mile long lake.

No one, however, could have predicted the adventure that nature had in store that day.

Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On

Schmidt and Mitchell were near Bear Valley, on the lake’s northeast shore, marking the location for a new borehole, while the others were closer to the lake’s center. In 15-degree weather, the team had just completed drilling the first bore hole near the center of the lake when the rumbling began – an introduction to the world’s second most powerful earthquake next to the 1960 earthquake near Valdivia, Chile, which registered 9.5 in magnitude.

“We didn’t have time to do anything. We were fixed to the spot where we were at,” Mitchell recalled with acute clarity. “We just kind of rode the ice fighting to stay on our feet and not fall down. The ice was cracking and we could hear these big booming sounds.”

The earth rolled underneath them for approximately three minutes. Then, as Schmidt and Mitchell looked up, they watched huge amounts of snow rush down the surrounding mountains.

“You could hear these avalanches taking place,” he said.

Schmidt and Mitchell carefully navigated their way over cracks in the ice. They wanted to account for the others whom they soon found to be unharmed. The avalanches spit gusts of snow into the air, reducing visibility to 10 feet. The five boarded their Arctic Cat and, in a rush to beat the fast-approaching dusk, steered their way toward the northwest shore. However, the ice near the shore was moving and too fragmented to reach dry land, not even after the group abandoned their vehicle and walked, all clutching a rope in case someone slipped into the frigid, swirling water.

Undecided about whether to stay on the lake until they could be rescued or try another path to the shore, Schmidt belonged to the camp of “we need to get the heck off this lake,” Mitchell recalled. The group made its way toward Bear Valley, where the ice remained more intact and eventually reached the shore.

“Ruth was certainly the one we listened to as a source of age and wisdom and calmness. She was sort of a guiding hand in the group,” Mitchell said. “I think she handled herself very well. There was no panic.”

Reaching … Safety?

As they struggled in the dark to find a safe haven, they saw a display of orange and pink flickering lights in the sky. None had ever experienced such a large earthquake, and they all knew the Soviets had four nuclear missiles pointed at Anchorage during this Cold War period.

Unsure if they had experienced an earthquake or nuclear attack, the group didn’t find out until they came upon a 12-by-20 foot cabin belonging to a patrolman of the Alaska Railroad and his family.

There, they hung a coffee cup from the ceiling to crudely measure the aftershocks that continued throughout the night. When the radio at the cabin was able to pick up airwaves hours later, an earthquake was officially confirmed. The orange and pink lights were from fires, as parts of Whittier were consumed by flames. 

After a sleepless night, the group was picked up by helicopter and taken to a nearby highway that was cut and sliced by deep crevices. It was reported that the front of Portage Glacier, once solid ice and nearly vertical, was shattered into a gentle slope.

The quake caused countless ground fissures, collapsed structures and tsunamis – killing an estimated 139 people.

Doing Her Part

As years passed, Schmidt and her team never reunited to share their experience as a group. Other than a handful of articles, the earthquake as experienced on Portage Lake has not been widely told.

What would Schmidt have to say today?

Gibert recalls the fearless geologist expressing disappointment for not experiencing the event in Anchorage, for the rumbles and asphalt waves would have been much more intense – perfect for adventurous types.

Schmidt soon made her own waves, though. As the appointed federal coordinator of the Engineering & Geological Evaluation Group, established immediately after the earthquake, she was tasked with coordinating an inter-agency effort of roughly 50 geologists and other earth scientists to document the surface ground deformations, cracks, landslides and other failures in Anchorage before rebuilding could begin.

She described how the process pit multiple groups against each other in the October 1964 Geotimes. In an article called “Geology in a Hurry,” Schmidt explained that a tug of war had erupted between her and her team of geologists, who insisted on taking time to document areas of vulnerability to mitigate future risks, and private and public parties who wanted to quickly rebuild so life could go on.

Angry editorials from developers appeared in the Anchorage Daily Times blaming geologists for unnecessary holdups. However, all data was gathered and made available to the public in a final report of the initial subsurface work by April 30 – roughly a month after the quake.

“No one likes to be told his house and business are on landslide areas, but if they are, how much better is it to know it?” Schmidt wrote.

“Will it be economically feasible to stabilize any of these slopes? Should these areas be turned into recreational areas only? Time will tell … but geologists have done their part as citizens to see that everyone has been made aware of the hazards of building on landslides and similar weakened and unstable areas.

“Let us hope they can continue to guide the city and to help see that disasters do not recur.”

An Eye on the Future

Blazing trails in her day, Schmidt wanted to make sure other women could make forays into the industry and succeed as well.

Upon retirement, she used her own funds to establish several scholarships for Alaskan women pursuing geology. Gibert said Schmidt also established a generous annual charitable giving plan to ensure her support would continue after she could no longer manage her affairs.

She never had children of her own, but through her financial support, Schmidt has given a life to many women who no doubt are taking that gift and becoming pioneers in their own right.

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Ruth A.M. Schmidt Background

Born April 22, 1916
Brooklyn, New York

  • 1936 – New York University (degree unknown)
  • 1939 – MA, geology, Columbia University
  • 1948 – Ph.D., geology, Columbia University (member of Sigma Xi)
  • 1943-56 – geologist, U.S. Geological Survey, Washington, D.C.
  • 1956-63 – USGS district geologist, Anchorage, Alaska
  • 1959-84 – Geology professor and chairperson, geology department, University of Alaska-Anchorage
  • 1964 – Federal coordinator, Engineering and Geological Evaluation Group, 1964 earthquake
  • 1964-2000 – Consulting geologist
  • 1975-76 – Environmental consultant, trans-Alaska pipeline, Office of the Governor
Professional Organization Leadership Roles
  • Fellow – American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Board of Governors – Arctic Institute of North America
  • Delegate – International Geologic Congress
  • Board – Alaska Geologic Society
Volunteer Leadership
  • 1979-91 – Trustee, president, Brooks Range Library, Anchorage, Alaska
  • 1989-98 – Board and officer, Anchorage Audubon Society
  • 1970s – Board and committee chairs, Alaska Center for the Environment, Anchorage
  • 1999-2001-plus – Advisory board and board, Alaska Museum of Natural History, Anchorage
  • 1957 – Joined AAPG
  • A pioneer woman in the field of geology.
  • Led large, inter-agency effort to document surface ground deformations, cracks, landslides and other failures in Anchorage following the 1964 great Alaska earthquake.
  • Taught hundreds of geology students over 25 years, especially encouraging women to study geology and science.
  • Built an impressive slide library of geologic and other natural features while traveling throughout Alaska and the world.
  • Led large, inter-agency effort to document surface ground deformations.
  • Donated a substantial portion of her financial resources to charitable causes, including the environment, science, the arts and social justice.
  • Established a generous annual charitable giving plan.
  • Established a scholarship fund for Alaska women entering the field of geology.

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