Muscatine’s Heezen advanced tectonics, mapped Atlantic

The Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine has opened application for the Muscatine High School scholarships, including the Bruce C. Heezen Memorial Scholarship to qualifying college-bound students pursuing any field of study. The scholarship is named for one of history’s foremost oceanographers and a former Muscatine resident. 

Bruce C. Heezen’s interests and studies took him from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic Ocean floor. This former Muscatine resident shaped the discussion about what shapes the earth’s crust, and he created maps of the ocean floor that are still used today.

Bruce Heezen was a scholar and a scientist that catapulted geographical study forward.  The multi-disciplinary impact of his findings knows no bounds.  Mr. Heezen’s example serves as a beacon of inspiration for all students.  Although Heezen had very specialized knowledge, a scholarship that bears his name supports college students in any course of study.

Heezen was born in Vinton, Iowa, in 1924, and moved to Muscatine at age 6. He attended Lincoln School through eighth grade and graduated from Muscatine High School in 1942. An only child, he worked on the family turkey farm before going to the University of Iowa, where he studied geology. He graduated in 1948.

That same year, he became a Roberts Fellow at Columbia University in New York City where he earned his Master of Science degree in 1952 and his doctorate in 1957. He worked in association with the university’s Lamont-Doherty Observatory throughout his career.

Although he led ocean-floor mapping expeditions all over the world, Heezen most closely studied the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is part of the longest mountain range in the world and separates the North Atlantic (tectonic) Plate from the Eurasian Plate. In the 1950s, the appearance of vast gaps and overlaps in the earth’s crust persuaded him to support the then-popular expanding earth theory. In less than a decade, he was among the geological leaders explaining plate tectonics and how they shape the earth’s surface.

Heezen worked closely with cartographer Marie Tharp, and the two produced a series of spectacular ocean-floor maps that were published in 1977 by the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Navy. The Heezen-Tharp physiographic maps have since been used all over the world.

In his expeditions, Heezen also took mineral samples of the ocean floor. With formations dating back as far as 10,000 years, the samples helped decipher information about the ancient history of the earth.

Heezen wrote hundreds of articles about plate tectonics and in 1971 co-authored a book with Charles Hollister titled The Face of the Deep. He won many scientific awards such as the Henry Bryant Bigelow Medal in Oceanography (1964) and the Cullum Geographical Medal (1973) and has had a U.S. Navy ship and a glacier in Antarctica named after him.

Heezen died of a heart attack while on an expedition in 1977. At the time, he was traveling in an underwater sea vessel between Scotland and Iceland. His body was brought back home to Muscatine, and he was laid to rest at Greenwood Cemetery.

A fellow geologist, Walter Youngquist, set up the Bruce C. Heezen Memorial Scholarship, insisting that the recipient also be handed a one-page description of how the scholarship came to be, including a brief biographical sketch of Heezen.

“I want the recipient(s) to know of both the technical and personal qualities of Bruce which impelled me to fund this scholarship,” Youngquist wrote.

A scholarship committee will consider applicants based on a combination of some or all the following: scholarly excellence, financial need, good moral character and willingness to work. Applicants must pursue academic studies at any accredited U.S. higher learning institution. At the Community Foundation’s discretion, the award may be renewed annually for up to four years.

Interested students may apply until noon, March 12, on the Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine website:

Recipients will be announced in May at Muscatine High School’s senior awards ceremony.