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Kirkham, Donald "Don"

Published onJul 30, 2021
Kirkham, Donald "Don"

(February 11, 1908 — March 7, 1998)

Quick Facts

Associate Professor of Soils and Physics, Professor of Soil and Physics, Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture, Director, Iowa State Water Resources Institute, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Iowa State University. 


Don Kirkham was born on February 11, 1908 at Provo, Utah, a son of Francis Washington Kirkham and Marta Alzina Robison Kirkham.  He grew up in Utah and California, worked as a newspaper delivery boy, farmhand, soda clerk, and musician, attended Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California, and graduated from East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1925. 

Kirkham also attended the McCune School of Music & Art in Salt Lake City while in high school and early college years and graduated with a degree as a clarinetist in 1926.  He served in the Utah National Guard from 1925-1927, attended the University of Utah in Salt Lake City in 1926-1927, and then went to Germany as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from 1927-1930.  Upon returning to America, he attended Cornell University and graduated in 1933 with an AB degree in physics with honors.  He continued at Columbia in graduate school and obtained an AM degree there in 1934 and a PhD in 1938.  While in graduate school, he was assistant in the Ernest Kempton Adams Laboratory.  His dissertation was entitled, The Variation of the Initial Susceptibility with Temperature and the Variation of the Magnetostriction and Reversible Susceptibility with temperature and Magnetization in Nickel.

Kirkham married Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Erwin at Marion, Iowa on September 2, 1939, and they had three children; Victoria, Mary Beth, and Don Collier Kirkham.  Betty Kirkham held degrees from Coe College and Columbia University and taught at Iowa State as Instructor and then Assistant Professor of English from 1962 until her retirement in 1979.

Upon receiving his PhD, Dr. Kirkham was employed at Columbia as an assistant and Summer School Instructor from 1934-1938 and then returned to Utah and taught at Utah State College, first as an Instructor and then Assistant Professor in physics and mathematics from 1938-1940.  He was an assistant hydraulic engineer with the Soil Conservation Service in 1940, Chief Physicist Anti-Magnetic Mine Warfare, Third Naval District, from 1940-1942, Physicist in Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D. C. from 1942-1946, and was Physicist-in-Charge, Naval Ordinance Laboratory Group, at the Bikini Atoll atomic tests.  He received two medals and a citation from the Navy for distinguished civilian service in degassing during World War II.

Also in 1946, Dr. Kirkham accepted appointment at Iowa State College as Associate Professor of Soils and Physics, was promoted to Professor in 1949 and Associate in the Institute for Atomic Research.  In 1959, he was appointed Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture, and in 1964, as Director of the Iowa State Water Resources Research Institute and Chairman of its Advisory Committee and Council.

Dr. Kirkham's research at Iowa State dealt with topics of soil water, soil aeration, structure, and strength, plant-soil-water relationships, water-solute interactions and processes as related to soil-water and groundwater pollution.  He has been credited with “laying a mathematical foundation for drainage theory, changing the design of drainage systems from a purely experience-based skill to one based on physical understanding.”  His research produced a prolific number of publications in the areas of agronomy, soil science, horticulture, geophysics, hydrology, physics, mathematics, engineering, and water resources. He published Advanced Soil Physics with co-author W.L. Powers in 1972.  He authored or co-authored 180 articles in at least forty academic journals, notably Soil Science, Physical Review, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, Journal of Geophysical Research, Soil Science Society of America Proceedings, Agronomy Journal, Water Resources Research, Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Iowa Academy of Science, Agricultural Experiment Station, Iowa State University, Research Bulletins, plus articles in books, handbooks, and foreign journals, addresses, sets of lectures, and symposium proceedings.  He also contributed five patents to the Iowa State University Research Foundation.  In addition, he found time to work with a large number of students over the years in soil physics.  At the time of his retirement in 1978, he had  directed seventy-nine students in graduate degrees of which twenty seven were MS degrees and fifty-two PhD's.

He was also involved in many other academic activities.  He was consulting editor of Soil Science from 1953 to 1978 and was an associate editor of Water Resources Research.  As early as 1950 he was Fulbright Lecturing Professor in Soil Physics at the State Agricultural University of Wageningen, the Netherlands and did research on underground water movement in the Northeast Polder of the Netherlands.  In 1957-58, he was Fulbright Award Lecturer in Soil Physics at the University of Ghent, Belgium, land reclamation consultant to Egypt in 1961, National Science Foundation delegate in soil science at Bucharest, Hungary and Prague, Czechoslovakia.  He served as the United States Atomic Energy delegate to Istanbul, Turkey in 1967, and Santiago, Chile in 1968, agricultural delegate to the Soviet Union in 1969 and geophysics delegate there in 1971.  Besides these activities he also delivered lectures, papers, or addresses in eleven other countries between 1958 and 1978; Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Chile, Morocco, Libya, India, Korea, Germany, and Sweden. 

Dr. Kirkham received many honors and awards over they years.  He was honorary faculty member of Phi Kappa Phi and Gamma Sigma Delta at Iowa State.  He won the Stevenson Award of American Society of Agronomy, 1952; Citation for Research in Scientific Hydrology, American Geophysical Union, 1953; ISU Sigma Xi Lecturer, 1959; 25th Anniversary Honor Lecturer, Soil Science Society of America, 1961; National Science Foundation Lecturer in soil physics, 1964-1968; member of the committee of Council of Higher Education of the American Republics, 1965; vice-president and president-elect of Sigma Xi, Iowa State University Chapter, 1972-1973.  He was a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow for research in soil physics, and a Fellow of the American Society of Agronomy, the American Physical Society, the Iowa Academy of Science, and the Soil Science Society of America.  He was a member of the American Geophysical Union, the American Mathematical Association, and the Netherlands Society of Agricultural Research.  He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Agricultural Sciences from Ghent University in Belgium in 1963.  He was listed in Who's Who in America, American Men of Science, Who's Who in the Midwest, American Educators, and Who's Who in World Science. 

His other activities included serving on the music committee in 1954, 1958, and 1968 and on the graduate committee at Iowa State.  He was  President of Elders Quorum of the Latter Day Saints Church, and a member and vice-president of the Iowa chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.

Dr. Kirkham retired from Iowa State University in March, 1978.  Two weeks before his retirement, he was honored by delivering the Winter Quarter commencement address, entitled, “Water, Our Prime Resource.”  After his retirement, he was awarded the Wolf Foundation Prize for Agricultural Research in 1983.

Dr. Don Kirkham died at Green Hills Health Care Center in Ames on March 7, 1998.  Following cremation, he was interred in Iowa State University Cemetery beside Betty who had died two years before, on May 9, 1996. 

In an article in Soil Science, Dr. Kirkham was described as “probably the best-known soil physicist of the 20th Century.”  Shortly after his death, The Don and Betty Kirkham Soil Physics Award and the Kirkham Conference were established by students, friends, colleagues, family, and the Soil Science Society of America.

Selected Sources

The primary source of information was found in the Don Kirkham Papers, RS 9/9/60, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.  The Papers are extensive, running 22.1 linear feet.  It includes extensive biographical information, speeches, lectures, news clippings, a bibliography of research publications and reprints of publications, lecture notes, committee notes, brochures, correspondence, presentations, files of a number of his graduate students, awards, photographs, and annual reports from experimental farms across Iowa, and more.

Other information was found online including the title of his doctoral dissertation; biographies of both Dr. Kirkham and his wife, Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Erwin Kirkham with a complete bibliography of Dr. Kirkham's publications and a list of his former graduate students which was posted by the Soil Science Society of America; information on the Don and Betty Kirkham Award & Conferences, also posted by the Soil Science Society of America; and family and genealogical information found on in the 1910 and 1920 U. S. Censuses and Public Member Family Trees.

 Soil Science Society of America, bio



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