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Hans Peter Misch, 1909-1987


Peter Misch, professor emeritus in geology at the University of Washington, passed away on July 23 in his home in Seattle. Until a week before his death he had continued to visit his rock-filled office, advising graduate students in their theses problems.

He was born in Berlin in 1909 and started doing many things early in life: painting watercolors at age 5, skiing at 6, studying geology at 10 and doing serious mountaineering at 14. His interest in geology came through Latin texts which his father, a professor of philosophy, brought home from the library at Göttingen. During the summers, Peter was sent to work on a farm, where he poked around the nearby hills, discovering fossils and geologic structures, which he pointed out to students of Professor Stille, who were mapping the area. Word of the Wunderkind eventually reached the great man, who summoned Peter to his office and, over the next years, directed Peter’s geologic education.

Peter received his doctorate at Göttingen in 1932, at age 23, with a thesis that covered his study of geologic structures and metamorphic petrology of the central Pyrenees in northern Spain. Because of his strong combined background in geology and mountaineering, Peter was invited to join the 1932 German expedition to Nanga Parbat led by Willi Merkl. During the expedition Peter carried out extensive geologic mapping in the foothills of the massive peak and then took part in the unsuccessful efforts to reach the climbers trapped high by a severe and prolonged snowstorm.

He left Germany in 1936, soon after running afoul of the Nazi authorities, but he managed to spirit out of the country many of his valuable geologic notes, rock samples and thin sections (rocks sliced thin for microscopic analyses). He went with his wife and small daughter to China, where he taught geology at the Sun Yat Sen University in Canton. After the Japanese invasion of China, he moved with the university in 1938 to the free interior province of Yunnan. In 1940, he joined the staff of the National Peking University in Kunming, Yunnan. He did geological research and field work—and climbed— in northwestern Yunnan, at a time when much of the geology of this part of China was poorly defined. In 1939, as Japanese bombing increased, Peter’s wife returned to Germany with their daughter; she died there during World War II, and he was not reunited with his daughter Hanna until nine years later, in Seattle.

Peter came to the United States on a lecture tour in 1946 and taught briefly at Stanford University before accepting a permanent post at the University of Washington in late 1947. While in California, he met and married Nicoletta (“Niki”) Rosenthal (formerly of Munich). The Misch household was enlarged by the addition of sons Felix and Tony and by the arrival of Hanna from Germany in 1948.

He joined the Seattle Mountaineers in 1947 and in 1949 he was elected to membership in the American Alpine Club.

Peter Misch was one of the early proponents of the emerging—and often controversial—theory of granitization, which ascribes that much of the granite coring of the major mountain ranges is the end product of the metamorphism of sedimentary rock materials. In the North Cascades of Washington, he found his “geologic home” and spent the next 40 years in unraveling the complex geologic structures and metamorphic petrology of the range, which had been mapped only superficially prior to his arrival on the scene. Peter’s work emphasized the relations between structure and metamorphism, especially the timing of deformation as it could be read from both large-scale field relations and thin sections of deformed minerals. Peter also did extensive work in the basin and range province of eastern Nevada. During the four decades of Peter Misch’s presence at the University of Washington, he supervised the projects of more than 125 graduate students.

During my post-graduate summer of 1950, I was privileged to spend two months with him in the North Cascades, where he had an on-going project of mapping the range, supported by the University of Washington and the Geological Society of America. The two of us traveled together in four 2-week sessions, working out a geological cross-section of the range. We pounded the outcrops and collected rock specimens and did considerable exploratory climbing, including a few first ascents and ridge-crest traverses. We also enjoyed frequent breaks in the high alpine meadows, where we captured the scenes in watercolor.

Peter was an all-around mountain man, as is typical of his generation of climbers—and of his profession of field geologist. He was adept at fighting the lowland brush and slide alder, always with a large pack, designed for a two- to three-week stay in the high country, and he handled steep rock, snow and ice with equal ease.

Peter Misch was always very private about his fine watercolor renditions of the many places he had traveled—the Alps, China, the Cascades and the ranges of Nevada—and his paintings have been exhibited almost exclusively on the walls of his house, or are unframed in his basement “archives.” His unique style of combining meticulous brushstrokes with bold and vivid colors brought out both the mountain mood and the geologic makeup of his landscapes. His only public showing was during the Alpine Art Show held in conjunction with the American Alpine Club’s Annual Meeting in Seattle in December 1983.

Those of us who have had the pleasure of Peter’s company through his inspiring geological teachings and field trips, or in skiing and climbing, will relive many fond memories of this unique scientist, teacher, artist and friend. We will miss most of all those wine-tasting and gab sessions with Peter and his delightful wife Niki at their home on the hill overlooking northeastern Seattle and beyond, to the North Cascades, Peter’s outdoor laboratory.

Dee Molenaar