R. Dana Russell was born in Pomona, California in 1906. He entered Pomona College in 1923. In his junior year, he took geology under A.O. Woodford and knew he had found his profession. In 1927 he entered graduate school at Berkeley. Dana mapped and described Pliocene sediments in the Sacramento Valley for his doctoral dissertation. He named and described a unit near the base of the sequence as the Nomlaki Tuff. He correctly interpreted it as a glowing avalanche deposit. He was among the first to recognize what later became known as welded tuffs.
In 1931, he joined the geology department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He established his scientific reputation with studies of modern sediments of the Mississippi River. During these years, Dana conducted his pioneering studies of the mineralogy, size, roundness and shape of the modern sands of the Mississippi.
In 1942, Dana joined the University of California Division of War Research in San Diego. After the war, the UCDWR shifted to what became the Navy Electronics Laboratory, and in 1947 Dana participated as a marine geologist in scientific resurvey of the atomic bomb test site on the Pacific island of Bikini.
In 1955, Marathon Oil Company hired Dana to build a geologic research group. The emphasis during the Russell years was on organic geochemistry and on the interpretation of carbonate and detrital sediments. This research was for application to reservoir geology and enhanced oil recovery, as well as to exploration. In 1963, he was promoted to associate director for exploration research where he was responsible for geophysics and logging research, as well as geologic research. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1970. He was a strong and influential advocate of sedimentological research in both industry and in academia.
In personal terms, the most important event of those years was his marriage in 1933 to Mary Flower Pugh of Bayou Lafourche, Louisiana. In 1977, Dana and Mary Flower moved to Santa Rosa, California, to be near their daughter, Nancy, and son, Rick, and their eight grandchildren.
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