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A separate school for Earth sciences was established at Stanford in 1947—although it was known at that time as the School of Mineral Sciences. The Earth sciences have been at the heart of Stanford’s academic program since the university’s beginnings, however, when John Casper Branner was hired as Stanford’s first professor in 1891. In 1913, Branner became Stanford’s second president. He brought to Stanford his private geological library, which contained about 5,000 volumes. That collection grew to become the foundation of the Branner Earth Sciences Library, housed in the Mitchell Building, and now home to about 125,000 volumes and some 270,000 sheet maps.

The original Department of Geology had changed its name to the Department of Geology and Mining by 1898, reflecting its focus on the search for and extraction of natural resources during that period of Western development. Petroleum studies were added in 1914. By 1930, petroleum and mining were moved to the School of Engineering, and geology was part of the School of Physical Sciences.

The School of Mineral Sciences was created in 1947, with A.I. Levorsen, a petroleum geologist as its inaugural dean. There were no departments in the newly formed school. Fields covered included geology, geophysics, geochemistry, and mining, metallurgical, and petroleum engineering, with plans to later include ceramic engineering and marine geology. Charles Park, a mining engineer, followed Levorsen as dean in 1950, and by 1962 the renamed School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences had reorganized into four departments: Geology, Geophysics, Mineral Engineering, and Petroleum Engineering.

During the tenure of the school’s next dean, Richard Jahns (1965-79) the Ruth Wattis Mitchell Building was completed in 1970, accommodating new analytical and experimental equipment, and the fields of ore deposits, hydrogeology, engineering geology, and remote sensing were combined into a new Department of Applied Earth Sciences.

Allan Cox, a geophysicist, became dean in 1979, followed by George Thompson, also a geophysicist, in 1987. Thompson had been instrumental in establishing the Department of Geophysics in the 1950s. Gary Ernst came to Stanford Earth Sciences as dean in 1989 (the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck the month following Ernst’s arrival, closing Geology Corner for the duration of his tenure.) Ernst played a major role in the creation of the Earth Systems Program in 1992. In 1993, the Departments of Applied Earth Sciences and Geology combined to form the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences (bringing the school’s total number of departments to three: Geological and Environmental Sciences, Geophysics, and Petroleum Engineering.)

Lynn Orr assumed the deanship in 1994 and led a review of the school’s academic program that identified a commitment to research strength in six areas: geochemistry and geochronology; sedimentary systems, basin structure, and evolution; continental dynamics; fluid flow in the Earth’s crust; environmental Earth sciences; and a new ocean margins program. The Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (now the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, E-IPER) received degree-granting approval during his tenure in 2001.

Pamela Matson became the school’s eighth dean in 2002. Matson, an interdisciplinary Earth scientist who studies chemical interactions among soils, water, plants, and atmosphere, had served as the director of the Earth Systems Program since 1999. During her tenure as dean, the school added a fourth department, the Department of Environmental Earth System Science, and the Department of Petroleum Engineering changed its name to the Department of Energy Resources Engineering. Matson led a major strategic planning effort that resulted in 2005 in a new strategic plan for the school and a new vision: that of the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences as a world leader in Earth and environmental sciences and engineering, one which creates, integrates, and transforms fundamental understanding of Earth processes, and uses that knowledge to help provide energy, water, and a safe and sustainable planet. 

After more than 50 years as the School of Earth Sciences, the name was changed to the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences in 2015 to better reflect the breadth of its research and teaching, which focus on understanding the changing Earth and helping address resource and environmental challenges facing the world.