Brian Mitchell, Ph.D.: 1936-2018

by Nancy Solomon on 06/01/2018
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Brian J. Mitchell, Ph.D., professor emeritus and past chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Saint Louis University, died May 29. 

He was 81.

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Brian Mitchell, Ph.D.

Dr. Mitchell joined the faculty of Saint Louis University in 1974, and became professor emeritus in 2012. He was a geophysicist who studied the attenuation of seismic waves and measurements, which contributes to our understanding of earthquakes.

Dr. Mitchell also was a media darling, doing interviews debunking Iben Browning’s 1990 prediction that an earthquake would level New Madrid, Missouri, wreaking havoc in portions of Missouri and the surrounding states.

David Crossley, Ph.D., professor of geophysics, noted Dr. Mitchell’s passion for the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, attending every department meeting he could, even as an emeritus professor.  

“Brian will be remembered for his influential tenure as department chair from 1980 to 1995 and his devotion to seismology and mentoring many talented seismology students,” Crossley said.

“Brian was so successful in nurturing his protégés that many went on to influential careers in teaching, research and high-profile company positions. From these contacts Brian was able to establish, more than any other chair of the department in recent times, an extremely valuable donor network that continues to this day to support geosciences at SLU.”

When Crossley took over as chair in 1995, “Brian was the most gracious, supportive, and helpful person one could imagine for a newcomer like me to academic administration,” Crossley added.

Lupei Zhu, Ph.D., professor of geophysics at SLU, also benefited from Dr. Mitchell’s support when he joined SLU’s faculty in 2001 as an associate professor.

“Brian was a gentleman and had a warm heart to care for others. Without me telling him, he understood the needs of an early-career faculty member like me in terms of recruiting graduate students and establishing funded research projects,” Zhu said.

“When I was hired in 2001, he was several years away from his retirement but he happily transferred his then first-year graduate student to work under my supervision. He also gracefully invited me as co-PI to join his application for NSF funding to conduct an international collaborative seismic experiment in western Turkey.”

Dr. Mitchell received the St. Louis Academy of Science’s prestigious Peter Raven Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 for his seismology research and was chief editor of the scholarly geophysics journal, Pageoph.

Dr. Mitchell was an engaged and renowned member of multiple geological professional groups. He was a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, Royal Astronomical Society and was a member of the Seismological Society of America and Sigma Xi.

He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota and his Ph.D. in geophysics from the University of Texas at Dallas in cooperation with Southern Methodist University.

Dr. Mitchell was inquisitive, humble, joyful and welcomed a challenge. He became an Army paratrooper although he was afraid of heights and completed the Ironman World Championship when he was 63. Nicknamed Tremor, he enjoyed running with friends in Forest Park.

He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Judith Mitchell, two sons, David and Peter, and four grandchildren.  

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m., Saturday, June 9, at Laclede Groves Chapel, 723 S. Laclede Station Road in Webster Groves, with private interment. Donations are preferred to the Brian Mitchell Fund for Earth and Atmospheric Sciences of Saint Louis University, One North Grand Blvd., DuBourg Hall, Room 319, St. Louis MO 63103 or to charity of the donor’s choice.