Meet Frank Brown: renowned geologist, global adventurer — and regular guy.

by Lee J. Siegel*

* Winner of a Golden Spike Award for magazine writing, 2002

As a geologist, Frank Brown played a key role in determining the ages of humanity’s ancestors in East Africa and the timing of human evolution. But ask colleagues about Brown, and you are more likely to hear how he shovels snow and slaughters bugs outside his campus building, makes quince jelly and needlepoint for donors, aids impoverished Kenyans, and commits many other acts of kindness.

In academia, where titles and honors sometimes stuff shirts to the bursting point, Frank Brown—dean of the University of Utah’s College of Mines and Earth Sciences and recipient of the 2001 Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence, the University’s highest honor—stands out as an exemplar of humility and an all-around nice guy known for his dedication to students, plain talk, and open door.

“Frank is certainly a very special and unusual and dedicated person,” says paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey, of the National Museums of Kenya. Brown has collaborated with Leakey and her husband, Richard, for more than 20 years to help pin down when various early human relatives roamed Africa.

Just how special and unusual and dedicated is Brown?

He has traveled to Africa about 30 times in the last 35 years, and his African camping skills are legendary. “He can create any desired type of field tool or kitchen utensil—such as a spoon, fork, and egg beater—given only a Swiss Army knife and an acacia tree,” says U geologist Tony Ekdale. “He can whip up a pretty delicious goat liver curry for dinner in the field.”

Oh, and Brown usually speaks the appropriate native language—Swahili, Kikuyu, Amharic, or Turkana—when working in the field in Africa. Once he sent a list of about 1,000 words in Dassanetch—a language spoken by a tribe in Ethiopia—to a linguist who had written that the language contained only 300 words.

Despite workaholic tendencies, Brown can be laid back in stressful circumstances. Once, in an African camp, he was writing in his journal when he noticed a deadly cobra had crawled under him. Before jumping to safety, Brown first wrote: “Stopping now. Cobra under chair.”

Brown, who once tackled a car thief in France, is also not afraid to tangle with the University bureaucracy. “He is known among the deans as the cranky number-cruncher,” says Sarah George, director of the Utah Museum of Natural History. “Every time some financial issue comes up in the Council of Academic Deans, Frank hauls out pencil and paper and, muttering sotto voce, recalculates things from yet another perspective, announcing results that no one can argue with because we haven’t figured out what he’s talking about yet. Once we do, he always seems to be right.”

When Arthur Smith was president of the U, Brown objected to racial and gender categories in a diversity report he was asked to write. Instead, he listed every individual in his college by personal characteristics, including foreign languages spoken, religion, war experience, and left- or right-handedness. He had the report translated into 20 languages.

As for humility, “He is the only dean I know who shovels the snow off of the walk to the building so people won’t fall when they arrive,” says Ron Bruhn, chair of the U’s geology and geophysics department. Brown also “plants flowers along the sidewalk edge to make the Browning Building more attractive.”

Paul Jewell MS’84, a U hydrologist, recalls the time he was scheduled to meet two distinguished government geologists in the parking lot one Saturday morning. “To ask of my whereabouts, they approached a tall, bearded gentleman using a torch to conduct genocide on the thousands of box elder bugs hanging around the doors of the Browning Building. They were highly amused to be told later that he was the dean of my college.”

As Brown explains, “Everybody goes nuts” when thousands of bugs periodically cling to the building, “so I decided I would reduce their population. And I don’t like pesticides.”

Finally, every holiday season Brown delivers poinsettias to retired colleagues to remind them that they haven’t been forgotten. He also makes needlepoint embroidery gifts for certain donors to his college. “The only way I saw to thank them was to make them something they couldn’t buy,” he says.

Francis Harold Brown was born Oct. 24, 1943, in Willits, Calif., 10 miles from his family’s 30-acre spread in Redwood Valley. His father, Francis Edward Brown, was a carpenter who built the family home under a huge oak tree. The Browns had a 13-acre vineyard across the valley. On their main spread, they maintained a big lawn, vegetable garden, and woodlots; grew walnuts, apples, and peaches; and raised chickens, geese, and cows.

Brown loved cool, damp mornings among the vines, and could have taken over his grandmother’s vineyard when he came of age. Instead, he says, “I decided to go off to college. But I think I could have been just as happy working in a vineyard, maybe happier.”

When Brown arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1960, his initial interest in chemistry was shattered when a teaching assistant refused to answer students’ questions. Brown toyed with Latin and linguistics, but turned to geology after touring displays in the geology building. He was attracted to the humble, helpful nature of his professors—to whom he attributes his own love of teaching.

“They loved geology and they loved telling people about geology,” he recalls. “You could go to a professor at any time with any question and get an answer. If there’s anything that makes me this way with students, it’s probably my professors.”

In fact, Bruhn remembers that, years ago, Brown once insisted on accompanying students on a field trip to Idaho’s Craters of the Moon despite severe back pain. The students had to lay Brown flat in the back of a van. Berkeley was tumultuous in the 1960s, with the free-speech movement and protests against the Vietnam War. But Brown was studious; he spent the required year in ROTC, joined the rowing team, and earned his B.A. degree in geology in 1965, followed by a Ph.D. in 1971. He opposed the war but reported himself to his draft board when he realized he had forgotten to register. He never was drafted.

Brown joined the University of Utah faculty in 1971, rose to full professor in 1980, served as chair of geology and geophysics from 1988 to 1991, and then became dean of the College of Mines and Earth Sciences in 1991. The college includes four departments: geology and geophysics, meteorology, metallurgical engineering, and mining engineering.

His African odyssey began by chance in 1965. He was working in a Berkeley lab when University of Chicago anthropologist Clark Howell walked in and asked Brown’s advisor, Garniss Curtis, if he had a student who would go to Africa.

“Curtis said he couldn’t think of anybody, but I was standing there and said I’d go,” Brown recalls.

In spring 1966, Howell sent Brown, then 22, alone into southern Ethiopia’s Omo Valley for six weeks to learn the chronology of rocks that Howell planned to prospect for early human fossils. There, a policeman, Geoffrey Harcourt, helped Brown navigate a Land Rover across a cause-way submerged by floodwaters from Lake Turkana in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia.

Brown at Mursi with decorated man

Two weeks later, Brown fell ill with malaria. He crossed back into Kenya and found help in Lokitaung. “Police cadets—a bunch of young Kenyans—took care of me,” providing food, water, and a cot, Brown recalls. “I was immensely impressed by their generosity and their willingness to take in this crazy white man.”

Brown attributes his love of Kenya’s people to that experience. Over the years, he has bought a taxi for one Kenyan, helped another clear 10 acres for a farm, and had a home built for yet another. He has also brought Kenyan students to the University and provided them accommodations in his home.

During his African trips, Brown twice escaped gunshots from suspicious natives and endured four bouts of serious illness, most recently in 1998 when he lost 30 pounds due to malaria and typhoid.

Although he is a dean, Brown’s office door is always open, and “he teaches the same number of courses that all the rest of the faculty in our department teach,” says Ekdale. “He happily declines to attend committee meetings during class time because he refuses to miss teaching his students.”

In 2001, after earlier winning five teaching awards, Brown received the Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence in teaching, research, and administrative work. Instead of keeping the $40,000 in prize money, he directed the University to place it in a fund to help students.

As dean, Brown increased his college’s endowment from $6 million to an estimated $35 million. The biggest donor is the Rev. Marta Sutton Weeks, an Episcopal priest in Miami whose late father, oil explorer Frederick Albert Sutton, graduated from the U in 1917. During the 1990s, Weeks donated $6 million toward Brown’s yet-unrealized goal of $20 million to replace the deteriorating Mines Building, west of the Browning Building.

“He is just a wonderful human being,” comments Weeks, recalling how Brown has made quince jelly and a needlepoint pillow for her, and helped her dig potatoes when she ran a garden for the homeless in Midvale, Utah. However, Brown’s generosity once got him in trouble. While driving a rental car in France, stopping to collect volcanic rocks along the road, he picked up a hitch-hiker. When he stopped again for rocks, the hitchhiker stole the car, along with Brown’s traveler’s checks and other valuables.

Brown later boarded a train to Lyon to replace the checks. At one stop, he stepped into the train corridor, “and there was the guy who stole the car standing next to me,” says Brown. “When the train started to move, he jumped off and so did I. I chased him through the streets and eventually caught him. He took a poke at me and bloodied my nose. Then I grabbed him and slammed him into a lamppost. About that time the police came.”

The thief was jailed and the car was recovered.

Brown’s scientific work has focused on the last 4.5 million years of early human evolution in the Lake Turkana basin. He chemically analyzed volcanic ash from ancient volcanic eruptions and figured out the sequence of ash layers and intervening sediment layers. Ian McDougall of Australian National University in Canberra uses potassium-argon and argon-argon dating methods to determine the age of each ash layer.

The work by Brown and McDougall allowed the Leakeys and other anthropologists to assign dates to fossils of early human relatives found in the layers. “Without Frank, we would have fossils but wouldn’t know anything [about their ages],” Leakey said in 1999. “He is incredibly important to our work.”

“Frank’s contribution to paleoanthropology and Paleolithic archaeology in Africa has been and is immense…some of the best in the 20th century,” says anthropologist Desmond Clark of the University of California, Berkeley.

Brown worked in the Omo Valley from 1966 until 1974, when a military coup forced researchers out of Ethiopia. He also has studied volcanic rocks and sediments in Tanzania, Uganda, Utah, Libya, and China.

In 1980, Richard Leakey asked Brown to help him study the geology of the Koobi Fora area northeast of Lake Turkana. Brown has worked with the Leakeys ever since.

Life magazine in 1981 named Brown a member of its “ideal team to pursue the exploration of the past.” He was presented to Queen Elizabeth II in London in 1985 when she opened an exhibit on early man. The same year, he was featured in National Geographic for his part in the discovery, with the Leakeys, of a fossilized early human boy he helped date as 1.5 million years old.

Brown also has helped determine the ages of other important fossils, most recently Kenyanthropus platyops, or “flat-faced human from Kenya,” discovered by Meave Leakey’s expedition west of Lake Turkana and announced in 2001.

Brown and McDougall determined the skull was 3.5 million years old—older than the partial skeleton nicknamed “Lucy” unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974. The discovery raised the question of whether humanity’s true ancestor was Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, as long believed, or Kenyanthropus, an entirely new genus of early human. Brown’s work on ash layers also led to Lucy’s being re-dated to 3.5 million years old, older than the 3.1 million years first thought.

Such research, says Brown, “built up a picture of the landscapes in which these early hominids lived—the river, lake, and small streams coming in from the side. You can see the old beaches and sand dunes. You can see old stream courses. You walk through these sediments and you can see what the landscape was like in the past.”

And perhaps seeing those long-ago landscapes helps keep Brown down to earth today—whether that earth is in Africa or on the U of U campus.

Lee J. Siegel is a science news specialist for the University’s public relations office and a freelance science writer