Plate Tectonics and People

Drummond Hoyle Matthews

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Drummond Hoyle Matthews History of Science: Illustration from Carol Williams' book: "Madingley Rise and Early Geophysics at Cambridge" (Third Millenium Publishing, London, 2009, 208 pages, ISBN 978 1 906507) (All rights reserved). Reproduced here for educational purposes only.

Biographical Information

Drummond Hoyle Matthews (5 February 1931 - 20 July 1997) was a British marine geologist and geophysicist whose research and field studies contributed significantly to the plate tectonics theory. Matthews and his graduate student Fred Vine (also British) demonstrated that variations in the magnetic properties of crustal material forming the ocean floor were consistent with Harry Hess's 1962 theory of sea floor spreading. Their work established the mechanism for see floor spreading and validated Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift.

Drummond H. "Drum" Matthews grew up in the coastal village of Porlock in Somerset in the southwest of England. The early exposure to the ocean had a huge impact on his life and later career as a marine geologist. Following service in the Royal Navy, Matthews attended King's College, Cambridge, where he focused his studies on geology and petrology. Upon graduation, Matthews was posted to the Falkland Islands from 1955-57, where he worked in the Dependencies Survey, the predecessor organization to the British Antarctic Survey.  After finishing his assignment in the Falklands, Matthews returned to Cambridge to complete a Ph.D. in marine geophysics.

From 1960 to 1966, Matthews was a Senior Assistant in Research in the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics, and a Research Fellow of King's College, Cambridge. He became an Assistant Director of Research at Cambridge in 1966, and was appointed Head of the Marine Geophysics Group. During his tenure as Head of the Group, Matthews participated in and contributed to over 70 scientific expeditions and published nearly 200 academic papers, working in areas as diverse as the North Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Gulf of Oman. In 1971, he was appointed Reader in Marine Geology at Cambridge. Matthews referred to the period that he had charge of the Marine Geophysics Group (1967 - 1972) as "the heroic period of ocean exploration." The numerous cruises undertaken by the group resulted in discoveries of several "new features of the ocean floor and its plate boundaries."9

From 1979 on, Matthews began to study deep crustal seismic events that allowed research into the structure and evolution of continental crust. He helped found the British Institutions Reflection Profiling Syndicate (BIRPS), and became its first Director in 1982. BIRPS revealed previously unknown structures in the lower crust and upper mantle. He left BIRPS in 1990, taking early retirement as the result of ill health. Matthews died at the age of 66 after a long battle with diabetes and complications from a heart condition.

Specific contributions to plate tectonic theory

As a research fellow at King's College, Cambridge in 1962, Matthews and his graduate student Fred Vine analyzed surveys that Matthews had made of portions of the Carlsberg mid-ocean ridge in the northwest Indian Ocean. The survey revealed a pattern of magnetic anomalies, specifically reverse polarities, running in parallel stripes and virtually symmetrical on either side of the ridge. (Figure 1) They described the anomalies as "parallel zebra stripes of normal and reversed magnetism"1 around the Carlsberg mid-ocean ridge.  Matthews and Vine proposed that molten rock rising from the mid-ocean ridge had solidified and "captured" the magnetic orientation of the ferro-magnetic minerals while spreading to form new ocean floor on either side of the ridge. Magnetic field reversals on the continents had previously been demonstrated, therefore it followed that a correlation might exist between continental magnetic reversals with such reversals noted in the oceanic magnetic striping. Ocean crust consists of basic igneous rock, containing significant amounts of magnetite. When such rock solidifies, the polarity of the magnetite aligns itself with the prevailing (existing) magnetic field, which then becomes part of the paleo-magnetic record.

Diagram of magnetometer towed by surface vessel and recording magnetic anomalies on ocean floor

Figure 1. Diagram of surface vessel towing magnetometer and recording magnetic signature of normal and reverse parallel "stripes" of oceanic crust. Retrieved June 01, 2010 from URL:

Figure 2. Comparisons of magnetic profiles of oceanic crust from three different major ocean regions -- the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. llustration from Vine and Matthews (1963)1 (All rights reserved) Reproduced here for educational purposes only.

Matthews and Vine published their findings and ideas in Nature in 1963 in an article entitled "Magnetic Anomalies over Ocean Ridges."  Through their article, which Vine described as "a mere letter to Nature," Harry Hess's theory (idea) of sea floor spreading began to gather support. Surveys made of other ocean ridges presented analogous magnetic anomalies with each succeeding survey.3,4,5,9 (Figure 2) Confirmation of the Earth's polarity reversals a few years later not only further validated the Matthews-Vine hypothesis but provided a timescale allowing the rate of spreading to be estimated for each section of ocean ridge. The contribution of Matthews and Vine proved to be an essential element in the development and acceptance of plate tectonics theory.

Other interesting scientific contributions

1979--Matthews began to study deep crustal seismic events that allowed research into the structure and evolution of oceanic and continental crust.6,7,8

1981--Matthews shifted his focus from the sea to the continents as he teamed with his colleague Jack Oliver (Cornell) in 1981 and founded the British Institutions Reflection Profiling Syndicate (BIRPS). Matthews originally considered applying "universities" to the group name ("BURPS") instead of "institutions," however, he saw fit to alter the name so as not to offend the funding authorities. "The BIRPS group, under Matthews' leadership, set new standards for deep crustal imaging, routinely recording complex and hitherto-unknown structure in the lower crust and upper mantle."8,9

1983--Ever the intrepid researcher, Matthews expanded his field of interest and led a research project that would later confirm Dan Mackenzie's theoretical model that "[suggested] sedimentary basins were formed when the thick outer layer of the Earth, the lithosphere, was thinned by stretching.  Publishing their findings in 1983, Matthews and his research group "showed for the first time that the crust beneath the North Sea was indeed thinned by stretching and that McKenzie's model was a good description of the process." As had become his custom, Matthews gave full credit of this achievement to his graduate students by removing his name from authorship. Matthews' model became a standard applied in "both academia and the oil industry, and it continues to underpin our understanding of sedimentary basins around the world and their important hydrocarbon potential."9

Other cool stuff you should know

During his research in the Gulf of Aden, while on board the HMS Owen as part of the international Indian Ocean expedition of 1961-63, Matthews "worked without technical support, pulling in by hand the 500-metre towed magnetometer cable, as well as running the instrumentation."9

Matthews received many honors and awards recognizing his contributions to geology and geophysics. These include:

* Chapman Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1973, with Fred Vine)

* Fellow of the Royal Society (1974)

* Bigsby Medal of the Geological Society of London (1975)

* Arthur L. Day prize and lectureship of the National Academy of Sciences (1975, with Vine)

* International Balzan Prize (1981, with Vine and Dan McKenzie)

* Hughes Medal of the Royal Society (1982, with Vine)

* Fellow of the American Geophysical Union (1982)

* G. P. Woollard Award of the Geological Society of America (1986)

* Wollaston Medal (1989) [highest honor of the Geological Society of London]

Matthews and Vine both received the Hughes Medal in 1982. The medal, named for David E. Hughes, is awarded by the Royal Society of London in recognition of an original discovery in the "physical sciences, particularly electricity and magnetism or their applications." David Edward Hughes (16 May 1831 - 22 January 1900) was a British co-inventor of the microphone, When not inventing things, he was an accomplished Welsh musician and a professor of music, as well as chair of natural philosophy at a seminary for women in the United States. Other notable recipients of the Hughes Medal included J.J. Thomson, in 1902; Alexander Graham Bell, in 1913; Neils Bohr, in 1921; Enrico Fermi, in 1942; Stephen Hawking, in 1976; to name a few.  The Hughes Medal has been awarded 105 times, and never awarded to the same individual more than once. For reasons not disclosed by the Royal Society, the Medal was not awarded in 1924.


1. Vine, F.J. and Matthews, D.H. (1963). Magnetic anomalies over oceanic ridges, Nature, 199, 947-949.

2. Black, M., Hill, M.N., Laughton, A.S. and Matthews, D.H. (1964), Three non-magnetic seamounts off the Iberian coast, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 120 (1-4), 477 - 513.

3. Pittman, W.C. and Heirtzler, J.R. (1966). Magnetic Anomalies over the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge, Science, 154 (3753), 1164 - 1171.

4.  Matthews, D.H., and Bath, J. (1967). Formation of magnetic anomaly pattern of mid-oceanic ridge, Geophysical Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 13, 349 - 357.

5. Matthews, D.H. (1969). Model Study of the Magnetic Anomaly Pattern Across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at 45° North, Tectonophysics, 8, 353 - 358.

6.  Smythe, David K., Dobinson, A., Mcquillin, R, Brewer, J.A., Matthews, D.H., Blundell, D.J. and Brian Kelk. (1982). Deep structure of the Scottish Caledonides revealed by the MOIST reflection profile, Nature, 299, 338 - 340.

7.  Klemperer, Simon L. and Matthews, D. H. (1987). Iapetus suture located beneath the North Sea by BIRPS deep seismic reflection profiling, Geology,15, 195-198.

8.  White, Robert S. and Matthews, D. H. (2007). Variations in oceanic upper crustal structure in a small area of the north-eastern Atlantic, Geophysical Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 61 (2), 401 - 435. [original submission March 1979]

9.  White, R.S. (1997), Obituary: Drummond Hoyle Matthews (1931 - 97), Nature, 388, 524.