Renowned Bering Land Bridge researcher dies

Posted: Sunday, November 04, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- One of Alaska's most eminent scientists, an expert on the Bering Land Bridge, died early Friday morning.

David Hopkins, 79, died in Menlo Park, Calif., of kidney failure.

Hopkins's colleagues called him the world's foremost authority on the Bering Land Bridge. He argued it once linked two continents.

He did not discover or name the land bridge, but throughout his career encouraged geologists, botanists, archaeologists and other scientists to work together to prove its existence.

He promoted the theory that the bridge, now underneath the Bering Strait, served as a dry-land connection during the last ice age for the migration of humans and animals between Asia and North America.

Hopkins collaborated with Russian scientists across the Bering Strait on a number of research projects. That style of international cooperation has since become the focus of the National Park Service's Shared Beringia Heritage Program, which seeks to connect researchers and residents in Alaska and the Russian Far East.

Hopkins was so esteemed by his students and colleagues that they nicknamed him ''Godkins.'' They also called two of his books -- one written in 1967 on the Bering Land Bridge and the other published in 1982 on Beringia -- ''The Old Testament'' and ''The New Testament.''

''That's how much he stood over everyone in the field,'' said Owen Mason, an Alaska archaeologist and a Hopkins student.

''He knew the Seward Peninsula better than any other geologist,'' said Tom Hamilton, a colleague at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Hopkins was born in New Hampshire and earned one of Harvard's first doctorates in quarternary geology. For more than 40 years, he worked for the Alaska section of the USGS based in California, spending summers in Alaska doing field work. After his retirement he taught, conducted research and directed the Alaska Quarternary Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was at UAF from 1985 until 1999. There, he was also credited with bringing more women into geology and related fields.

In addition to earning a number of prestigious awards, Hopkins also has six species of Beringian fossils named after him, an accomplishment of which he was quite proud, Mason said.

Mason and others described Hopkins as down-to-earth and extremely approachable. He loved spending time in the field and continued to do research even when he was suffering from kidney problems and was on dialysis.

''For all the honors he had, he was a very unpretentious person,'' Hamilton said. ''He was never afraid to be wrong. He was more interested in getting the information out.''

''He was so well-read he could have been imposing,'' said Dale Vincent, one of his graduate students and now the historic preservation coordinator at Lake Clark National Park. ''But he was an open, friendly person. And very patient.''

Hopkins also loved trains and had once wanted to be a brakeman with the Alaska Railroad. ''His intense interest in geology was balanced by his love of trains,'' Vincent said.

Vincent added that Hopkins once told him that he had loved his work and ''thought he had lived one of the best lives he could.''

Hopkins was married three times. His first wife, Joan Prewitt Hopkins, died when she was 28, leaving Hopkins a single father with two young daughters.

''It was very hard for him,'' Dana Hopkins said. ''Up until the last conversation we had about my mother, he couldn't talk about it without crying.''

He is survived by his wife of 31 years, Rachel Hopkins, his daughters Dana Hopkins and Chindi Peavey, son Alex Hopkins and stepsons Vincent, Chris and Greg Stanley, as well as several grandchildren.

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