IN PROFILE: PROFESSOR EMERITUS

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By Heather Travis
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Professor emeritus Aleksis Dreimanis celebrated his 95th birthday in August and throughout life’s ups and downs, the glacial expert has maintained a steadfast curiosity for geology.
 

Professor emeritus Aleksis Dreimanis celebrated his 95th birthday in August and throughout life’s ups and downs, the glacial expert has maintained a steadfast curiosity for geology.  
 
When Aleksis Dreimanis looks around London, he imagines large glaciers grazing through the area and carving out the city’s landscape.  
 
Dreimanis is a professor emeritus in the Department of Earth Sciences at The University of Western Ontario. Much like the glacial deposits he has spent his life researching, the 95-year-old’s own story has many layers.
 
Born in Latvia, in the heart of the Baltic region, Dreimanis spent the summers of his youth wandering the countryside and dreaming about how the land around him was formed.
 
“As I was climbing those cliffs I noticed there were structures that were visible in glacial deposits that had never been described and I was curious about them,” he says.
 
After discussing the unique characteristics of the cliffs with his university professor, Dreimanis realized he had stumbled on something exciting and new to the scientific world.  
 
“As a third-year student I had written a paper about those structures and it was published,” he says. “That was my first publication about glacial tectonic deformations. They had never been studied in Latvia before.”
 
Dreimanis completed his Mag. Rer. Nat. degree at the University of Latvia in 1938 and his Habilitation degree in 1942.
 
“I liked nature and spending time outside so I specialized in geology and continued my study of glacial deposits in Latvia,” he says.  
 
As a reserve officer, Dreimanis was drafted to the Latvian Legion during the German occupation in the Second World War. He was assigned to be a military geologist and was sent to Germany to join the geological unit. He later journeyed to Northern Italy to geologically map the region.
 
“The mapping in Northern Italy was done by travelling by motorcycle,” he says. “We were attacked by airplanes very often, so we spent a great deal of time in ditches.”
 
He became a prisoner of war in Italy, but after 18 months he was reunited with his family in a refugee camp in Germany.   Dreimanis taught at the Baltic University (Hamburg and Pinneberg) from 1946-48. Keen to find a new place to enlighten young minds, he asked a friend to put an advertisement in a professional newspaper or journal highlighting his teaching skills.
 
At that time, Western was a small institution and in need of a new Earth Sciences lecturer.  
 
“I received a telegram ... from the head of the department suggesting I come to Canada and teach those courses,” he says.
 
He received permission to travel to England to be interviewed by Western’s president, G. Edward Hall and was asked to begin teaching in the fall of 1948.
 
“When I arrived in Canada I also found out that glacial deposits were more or less neglected here. The entire landscape and everything looked very similar to that which I knew in Latvia, so it was easy to work here in the area around London,” he says.
 
At Western he prepared a special course on glacial deposits, one of the first in Canada. To overcome language barriers, Dreimanis used photos and conducted lectures in the field to help students’ understanding of the geological concepts.
 
“I started deciphering the sequence of glacial deposits and their interglacial ages. There were times when there were no glaciations and then when there were extensive glaciations all over region,” he says.
 
“I established the first sequence of the glacial stratigraphy for Southern Ontario and the adjoining areas in the United States and Canada.”
 
Glacial deposits consist of materials glaciers absorbed as they moved across the landscape. Through chemical analysis, taking measurements of where the glaciers scratched the bedrock (called glacial striae), or orientation of stones in till, Dreimanis was able to offer a window into the path the glacial lobes travelled.
 
Dreimanis is an internationally recognized expert on Canadian glacial deposits, publishing about 200 articles on the subject and he carries the nickname ‘Dr. Till.’ Till is the term used to describe the clay mixed with sand, boulders and other objects deposited by melting glaciers.
 
Among his many achievements, Dreimanis received honorary doctoral degrees from Western and the University of Waterloo. In his native country, he was granted an honorary doctoral degree in Geography from the University of Latvia and the Three Star Order of Latvia, the highest award of the country for academic and cultural contributions.
 
Even 29 years after retiring from Western, Dreimanis remains a force in the Earth Sciences field.
 
Evidence that Dreimanis isn’t slowing down is the recent publication of an article in Northeastern Geology & Environmental Sciences (2008) on the “Postglacial Mastodon occurrences at Tupperville, Southwestern Ontario, Canada.”  
 
“I still like to think about my geological work because there are several topics that I had never published and now I am working on some of them,” he says. “I have been able to live so long by being active.”  
 

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