Gerald M. Friedman, Distinguished Professor of Geology, Dies at 90

December 20, 2011

World-renowned geologist Gerald M. Friedman, who retired in 2004 as a Distinguished Professor at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, died Nov. 29 at age 90. Before coming to CUNY in 1984, he taught for 20 years at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), worked in the oil industry and was one of the founders of the modern study of sedimentary rock.

He won virtually all of the top awards in his field (including the prestigious Twenhofel Medal and Sydney Powers Award), published some 500 papers and 19 books, mentored approximately 135 graduate and post-graduate students, launched four prestigious journals, organized more than 50 conferences and was known as the father of petroleum geology in Israel. A significant number of his RPI graduate students came from CUNY colleges.

Donald Clark, Friedman’s last doctoral student, studied Friedman’s textbooks as an undergraduate at SUNY Brockport in the 1970s. As Clark – then a New York City firefighter – was completing his master’s in geology at the College of Staten Island, Friedman phoned out of the blue. After having heard about him from a CSI professor, “He asked me to join him at the Grad Center,” Clark said. “When he called, it was quite an exciting afternoon for me. His name was legendary.”

Friedman had founded the Northeastern Science Foundation, a nonprofit educational and research corporation affiliated with Brooklyn College but located in upstate Troy, his hometown. Clark used that as his base for a dissertation on the hydrocarbon potential of the Beekmantown Formation, a carbonate reservoir that spans several states.

When Marc Helsinger (City College, B.S. in marine geology 1970) was president of the undergraduate campus geologic society, he invited Friedman to give a seminar at CCNY. “He was such a dynamic speaker, that cinched my decision” to go to RPI for graduate study. “He was one of the most inspiring professors in any subject that I’ve ever come across. You were thrilled to be in his class.” Helsinger’s doctoral dissertation was on the sedimentology and geochemistry of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers. He now runs two Houston-based companies, Dynamic GeoVentures and Focus Exploration, which use techniques like seismic stratigraphic analysis to hunt for and then monetize onshore and offshore oil and gas deposits.

Samuel Epstein (Brooklyn College, B.S. in geology, 1977) – an active geologist and executive director of Touro College’s new geology studies master’s program, as well as a senior vice president at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management in New York – also studied with Friedman at RPI and went on to coauthor four papers with him. His graduate research was in Israel, where “from 1967 to 1973 Friedman did a lot of work on the Sinai Peninsula. He worked with Ariel Sharon [then a major general and commander of Israel’s Southern Command, later prime minister]. “He was known as ‘the father of petroleum geology’ in Israel,” Epstein said. “I saw him in the Ministry of Geology with the generals, the big shots, doing work on petroleum.”

In his eulogy, Epstein added: “The professor convinced me to work with him on an exciting project in Eilat, Israel – 24-hour underwater measurements of pH [acidity], carbon dioxide and oxygen to determine the diagenesis of reefs [the chemical, physical or biological changes that sediment undergoes after being deposited]. At the time Professor Friedman was at his peak; 20 graduate students from Australia, India, Israel, Canada and the United States were working at various projects funded through grant money provided to him. It was a world of extreme excitement to work under the Albert Einstein of geology.”

Friedman was born in Berlin in 1921, where he became interested in geology and mineralogy as a youngster. “I began visiting the geological museum in Berlin, at the time one of the best museums in the field of geology,” Friedman wrote in a 1990 essay in the Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which was honoring him for a lifetime of achievement. While in high school, “I attended institutes and systematically studied the exhibits. However, my formal education was soon interrupted by the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany.”

Shortly before Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, the Nazi pogrom against Jewish businesses in 1938, Friedman fled to England, where he worked as a farm laborer while attending Cambridge University part time. When World War II began in 1939, he was interned on the Isle of Man because he was a German national. “I was eventually released for emigration to the United States, but because of war conditions, all shipping was cancelled, so I was assigned duties as a firefighter and night baker in war-time London” during the 1940 Blitz, he wrote.

In 1942 he sought to enroll in the University of London, but because he had not completed high school, he needed to pass a test. That, he wrote, seemed “a nearly insurmountable obstacle” after four years away from school. “But after taking four weeks from my duties as a night baker to study physics, review zoology and learn mathematics and English, I was able to pass the examination with honors.” He majored in chemistry and minored in geology.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1945, he emigrated to the United States and spent three years as a chemist with Squibb pharmaceuticals. In 1949 he enrolled in Columbia University’s geology program. He completed his master’s and doctorate in 1952 after just three years. By then, he had already been teaching geology at the University of Cincinnati for two years and had started to publish papers.

And he had met and married Sue Tyler, who also had left Germany before the war. Although she trained as a nurse, she worked as Friedman’s geologic assistant and business manager. Over 63 years of living with him, she e-mailed, she “became a geologist by osmosis.”

Leaving academia in 1954 to prospect for uranium in Ontario, he was part of a syndicate that a year later staked claims worth $90 million. But, he wrote, the deal “slipped through our fingers into the hands of a polished lawyer who helped us with the transfer of property.” On the upside, this experience led to a paper on uranium-thorium ratios. In 1956 he signed on as a research geologist with Amoco, looking for petroleum-bearing deposits.

“It was at this time that he also developed quantitative textural tests for characterizing sediments, and for which he won the 1961 Best Paper Award in the Journal of Sedimentary Petrology,” according to an appreciation in the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ Bulletin.

Then came his years at RPI, where he ranged not only over upstate New York, but also “studied carbonates and reefs in the Middle East and the Bahamas; evaporates in the Mediterranean; and global tectonics globally. During this time, he also collaborated with J.E. Sanders to produce their [1978] ‘Principles of Sedimentology,’ a text that has become a standard in its field,” the Bulletin’s appreciation recounts.

In 1978, when the International Association of Sedimentologists had its annual convention in Jerusalem, several Arab countries refused to participate, including Libya. At about that time, Friedman related in a post at, “Exxon in Libya asked me to visit in Tripoli, Libya. The request was forwarded to me while I was in Israel. I flew to Switzerland and on to Rome. My flight from Rome to Libya astonished me. I was the only passenger on the flight. As the plane started to drive, a car stopped it and a second passenger entered the plane. This passenger had represented Libya in central Europe at a meeting of the world’s petroleum-exporting countries. We visited on the flight, but soon arrived in Tripoli. On arrival Libya’s dictator Mohamed Kadafi greeted us. Kadafi is the highest statesman I ever met and spent ten minutes with him discussing geology.”

Friedman would go on to work elsewhere in the Arab world, including Kuwait and Algeria. Said Epstein: “They knew who he was. They overlooked him being Jewish because he was so good.”

Charles and Linda Sternbach, two of Friedman’s last graduate students at RPI, recall how he introduced them to carbonate geology and to each other. Their first date was a geology field trip. Charles (Ph.D. 1984) studied the world’s deepest gas wells in the Anadarko Basin in Western Oklahoma and northern Texas as part of Friedman’s pioneering work on deep burial diagenesis. Linda (M.S. 1984) studied the Knox Group, a sedimentary formation in the southern Appalachians. They’ve been married 28 years – “a small example of how Professor Friedman touched lives in a very personal way,” Charles e-mailed.

Inspired by Friedman’s work with professional societies, both Sternbachs became presidents of the Houston Geological Society. In 2000, Charles wrote the citation for Friedman’s Sydney Powers Medal from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the profession’s highest award. It reads: “To Gerald M. Friedman, educator and geological ambassador to the world, whose lifelong passion for learning, teaching, and service to others transformed sedimentology into a practical science. He inspired generations to become better scientists and oil finders.”

After two decades at RPI Friedman moved to CUNY, which had sent him a number of outstanding students. The University granted him Distinguished Professor status in 1988. Among other endeavors at CUNY, he explored “yo-yo tectonics” – also known as elastic rebound – in which slippage of Earth’s crust along a fault releases stored energy. Better understanding how this works could improve prediction of earthquakes.

“Students have been my spur,” Friedman wrote, and he was demanding. Epstein’s eulogy recounted his method of teaching doctoral students: “The students were excellent, studying 24/7, challenged to the extreme by the professor. The dreaded Friedman exams were three-hour writing marathons covering volumes of material. Four exams per course produced sleepless nights and terror to the graduate students. The required reading lists were not to be believed; a list of eight articles and at least two book chapters per week. Professor Friedman taught you to ‘research-read.’”

But he also took a personal interest in his students. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Clark, his last CUNY doctoral student.

“I started my doctoral studies in 2001, right before the attacks on the World Trade Center,” Clark recalled. “As a fireman, I lost quite a few friends and, in the weeks after the attack, I was involved in rescue and recovery operations.” The dust he inhaled damaged his lungs, leading to disability and a pension a year later.

“But I was able to complete my studies with Dr. Friedman four years later. He and his wife, Sue, gave me academic support and moral support. Dr. Friedman, having had some dark days as a Jewish person in Nazi Germany, had persevered through hard times. He knew what it felt like to lose family members and to have your entire world turned upside down. He saw the tragedy I went through and was an incredibly supportive person in my life.”

Besides his wife, Friedman’s survivors include five daughters – Judith Friedman Rosen, Ph.D., of Forest Hills, NY, a research associate in Jewish studies at the CUNY Graduate School who has adjuncted at Brooklyn and Queens Colleges and is on the Board of the Center for Jewish Studies at Queens College; Sharon Azaria, Ph.D., of Bet Gamliel, Israel; Devora Zweibach of Maale Adumim, Israel; Eva Scholle of Monsey, NY; and W. Tamar Spanier – of Linwood, NJ – 18 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.