Frank Press

December 4, 1924 - January 29, 2020

Scientific Discipline: Geophysics
Membership Type:
Member (elected 1958)

Frank Press served as the 19th president of the National Academy of Sciences from July 1, 1981 to June 30, 1993. As NAS president, Press also led a reorganization of the Academy’s operating arm, the National Research Council. He believed that the landmark 1986 report, Confronting AIDS — which warned that the toll of the AIDS epidemic would become far worse and urged a massive national response — was the most significant report issued while he was president. In fact, he told the Research Council’s governing body that the report, “may well rank among our most important contributions to the public welfare.” A report examining the cause of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion was another key report issued during his tenure.

From 1977 to 1981, Press was national science adviser to President Jimmy Carter and the second director of the recently formed White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In this role, Press was key in establishing a science and technology exchange agreement between the U.S. and China, which enabled thousands of Chinese students to study in the U.S. — many of whom went on to become U.S. citizens. He also focused on “increasing government commitment to basic research, evaluating the impact of federal regulations on the economy, and providing analyses of a national energy policy,” according to documents at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. In addition, Press was on the presidential science advisory committees during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and served on the National Science Board under President Richard Nixon.

Press was among the first generation of geophysicists who benefited from and contributed to revolutionary developments associated with the evolution of the field of plate tectonics, and he quickly became a leader in this area of research. He received the National Medal of Science in 1994 “for his contributions to the understanding of the deepest interior of the earth and the mitigation of natural disasters.” He was the recipient of many other awards and honors, including the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Japan Prize, and the Vannevar Bush Award.

Prior to his positions in Washington, D.C., Press was professor of geophysics and chair of the department of earth and planetary sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1965 to 1977. He had also held academic appointments at Columbia University and the California Institute of Technology, and was the chair of the U.S. delegation to the 1960 Nuclear Test Ban Conference in Geneva. Press received his undergraduate degree in physics from the City College of New York in 1944 in his Ph.D. in geophysics from Columbia University in 1946.

Upon completing his service as NAS president at age 69, Press accepted a four-year appointment as the Cecil and Ida Green Research fellow at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, and remained active as an adviser to several organizations — both public and private — for many years.

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