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David Hopkins, 79; Geologist Studied Bering Land Bridge

November 25, 2001|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Moody Hopkins, an arctic geologist considered to be the foremost authority on the Bering Strait land bridge, has died. He was 79.

Hopkins, who was among the first American scientists to work cooperatively with their Soviet counterparts in sharing information and doing field studies in Russia on the now-submerged land link between Siberia and Alaska, died of kidney failure Nov. 2 at his home in Menlo Park.

Little was known about the Bering land bridge when Hopkins began his field work on Alaska's Seward Peninsula in the early 1940s as a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Working with botanists, archeologists and other scientific specialists in the 1950s and '60s, Hopkins promoted the theory that the land bridge linked Asia and North America and allowed humans, animals and plant communities to migrate some 12,000 years ago.

Hopkins worked as a research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey from 1942 until 1984, when he became a distinguished professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. He taught, conducted research and directed the Alaska Quaternary Center until his retirement in 1994.

"Dave was a leader in trying to encourage scientific contacts between Russian scientists and American scientists, who were looking at the same thing, the Bering land bridge," said Jim Beget, a professor of geology at the University of Alaska.

Hopkins' main contribution, Beget said, "was as a synthesizer."

"Scientists tend to be very narrow. We have our specialties and interests," he said. "Dave was unusual in that he was extremely broad. So he would know the people who worked on plant history, or he would be friends with the people who were archeologists looking at the human part of the story and know the geologists who looked at sea level histories or glacial histories. And then Dave would connect the dots really. He'd physically bring the people together to talk."

In his role as synthesizer, Hopkins edited and contributed to "The Bering Land Bridge," an anthology of scientific papers by various specialists, published in 1967. He also served as co-editor and contributor to "Paleoecology of Beringia," a 1982 book. Beringia, a term Hopkins did not coin but helped popularize, refers to the large land area that includes eastern Siberia, the Bering land bridge and Alaska.

Hopkins, who made his first trip to Russia in 1969 as an exchange fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, later learned the Russian language and returned many times to conduct field studies in Siberia.

"He was very much celebrated there and still is," said his daughter, Dana Hopkins.

The esteem in which he was held in Russia became amply evident in the early '90s on his final visit. While he and a group of Russian and American scientists were in deepest Siberia and far from medical help, Hopkins suffered a heart attack.

"Word got to Moscow that the great American scientist had a heart attack, and a Russian ice breaker was sent to retrieve him," his daughter said.

Unlike the 1960s, when she was in school and the Bering land bridge was stated as theory in textbooks, Dana Hopkins said, it is now stated as fact and is part of the curriculum.

She said one of her father's proudest moments came only last month. Her seventh-grade son, Sam, was serving as an aide in a sixth-grade classroom when his grandfather came by to pick him up.

"My father walked in and they happened to be studying the Bering land bridge," she said. "The teacher said, 'Do you know who this is we have in our classroom?' And the whole class stood up and cheered. And the teacher had a couple of students explain his theory back to him."

In addition to his daughter, Hopkins is survived by his wife of 31 years, Rachel Chouinard Hopkins; another daughter, Chindi Peavey of Castro Valley, Calif.; a son, Alexander Hopkins of Reno; a brother, Dr. Daniel Hopkins of St. Charles, Mo.; a sister, Dona White of Elephant Butte Lake, N.M.; and eight grandchildren. He also had three stepsons, Christopher Stanley of Bainbridge Island, Wash., Gregory Stanley of Fairfield, Calif., and Vincent Stanley of Santa Barbara.

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