Remembering David Lowell

May 11, 2020

George Davis Reflects on the Life and Legacy of David Lowell


The passing of Dave Lowell is the passing of a life of global consequence. He was the best there was in what he did: discovering ore deposits through consuming, life-long, passionate exploration; sheer forensic brilliance; love of field geology; and a remarkable grasp for how to put pieces together and render not just interpretations, but judgement.

With degrees in mining engineering and geology, Dave pursued a career of field-based mineral exploration. 

John Guilbert described Dave as "the practitioner who had no patience with office politics, the one who was focused almost totally on trying to read geologic field alteration-rock-mineral detail into usable context for finding ore.” Ore deposit discoveries for which he is solely credited are Kalamazoo, Vekol, and Casa Grande (Arizona); Los Calatos, Pierina, and Toromocho (Peru); Escondida and Zaldívar (Chile); Mirador (Ecuador); and Alto Paraná (Paraguay). Lowell discoveries made with contributions of others include Bajo Alumbrera (Argentina); Dizon (Phillippines); JA Orebody (Canada); San Cristobal and Leonor (Chile); and Warintza (Equador). “He has personally discovered more copper than anyone in history and developed multibillion-dollar gold and copper mines that have changed the economies of nations," says Joaquin Ruiz.

Mark Barton, Co-Director of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources and Professor of Geosciences writes, "Dave was the most successful explorer of the last 60 years, having discovered, or co-discovered at least 12 major ore bodies that have become major mines including the world’s largest copper district, Escondida (Chile). Not only an explorer, he made major contributions to the science, notably through his synthesis and applications of alteration zoning in porphyry copper systems. These concepts, first expressed in his 1970 paper with John Guilbert, are key in the exploration of porphyry copper deposits and have been applied by generations of geologists worldwide. Dave captured his experiences in ‘The Intrepid Explorer’ and later summed up his career as a contrarian explorer as the Lacy Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Arizona in 2013.” 

Dave’s major scientific contribution was grasping the origin of mineralization and alteration zonation in porphyry copper deposits, leading to economic geology advances both in basic research and exploration. Combined impacts of his porphyry model and his unparalleled list of discoveries resulted in prestigious international lectureships and a stunning array of prestigious recognitions, including: the Society of Economic Geology Silver Medal, the Mining and Metallurgy Society of America Gold Medal, the Society of Economic Geology Penrose Gold Medal, the American Mining Hall of Fame Medal of Merit, the National Academy of Engineering, and two honorary doctoral degrees. Dave himself was especially proud of his second career: developing a School of Mines at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Peru, the oldest university in the “new world.”

Back in the early 1980s, Dave agreed to serve as a one-person development board for our UArizona Department of Geosciences. In that capacity he was pivotal in leveraging nearly $2 million in grant funding for major equipment purchases from the Keck Foundation. This funding appeared to be all about capital equipment, but in truth, the Keck Foundation agreed to invest in Geosciences’ capacity and need to retain and support outstanding assistant professors, including Joaquin Ruiz and Jon Patchett! In our initial visit to the Keck Foundation at their Los Angeles headquarters, Dave and I flew there and read over some little handbook on how to ask for money. We felt like novices and enjoyed some back-and-forth self-effacing humor. But no handbook was necessary. Through earlier projects in South America, Dave had already earned the immense respect and gratitude of William Myron Keck, Founder of Superior Oil Company. This fact was clear the moment we entered Keck headquarters, and things moved like clockwork!

On September 9, 1983, Dave was kind enough to spend a day with me and my advanced structure class examining the geology around San Manuel. He shared in detail the sequence of steps he took in the discovery of the Kalamazoo ore body. Other geologists before him knew that the top part of the San Manuel ore body was missing and assumed that it had been faulted up and to the northeast, only to be eroded away and lost to the geological record. But Dave saw clear evidence on the ground that the missing part of the ore body had been faulted down and to the southwest. Someone just had to find it. Dave the contrarian! My notes from that day provide an example of Dave’s tenaciousness, as well as some of his wordsmithing.

“The Kalamazoo ore body lies beneath the Purcell Window. Mrs. Purcell, a coverall-wearing lady married to a tooth-driller, was herself a churn driller. She was responsible for drilling 5 holes in the Purcell Window some years before. Dave found the drilling logs; hunted down the samples in a bee-infested storage tunnel; hired a beekeeper in Oracle to smoke them out; discovered clumps of samples lying on the floor in separate piles, …bags gone, for they had been eaten by pack rats; recovered the non-edible plastic labels; ‘archaeologically’ excavated the hard masses of cemented materials; analyzed the geochemistry; reconstructed alteration halos for his inferred Kalamazoo prospect at depth; and then on the first drill attempt hit the target, include high-grade copper.”

Dave flew me down to Chile in the 1990s to bounce off some ideas about another possible faulted ore body. The evening before our first day in the field was all fun and storytelling. In the field the next morning, however, it was all business. Dave asked me right away to describe the plate tectonic setting of Chile. Professorially, I responded by saying, “let’s start with the plate setting of the porphry copper province of Arizona.” He interrupted and made things crystal clear: He didn’t want to hear about Arizona; he wanted to hear about Chile. Dave did not swerve when pursuing a target!            

Dave received an Honorary Degree from The University of Arizona in the year 2000. In the midst of the anticipated applause, Dave faced the audience, standing there with his game face on in McKale. But when I whispered to him, “don’t let this go to your head,” he just beamedto the delight of everyoneand the applause kicked up! There was Dave!

As geologists we should be ever grateful that among their gifts was the establishment of the J. David Lowell Field Camp Endowed Scholarship Program of the Geological Society of America. This will build further over time as others contribute scholarships to the cause. The scholarship program reflects Dave’s love of the field, the personal, professional, and cultural value he attaches to field work and discovery, and his heart-felt view that we as geologists have a core responsibility to prepare future generations of geologists in ways that embrace and draw from ground truth. 

Others will list the many examples of the generosity and philanthropy of Dave and his wife Edith Lowell. They gave with humility. Mark Barton writes:

“Dave was a true gentleman, generous with his time and advice. He was a wonderful mentor and friend to all of us. Dave and his wife Edith were extremely generous in their support of the University of Arizona. Not only were they the namesake and major donors for the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources, but they also endowed the Lowell Program in Economic Geology and, recently, a new chair for the Head of Mining and Geological Engineering, as well as additional gifts toward both programs. They were also major contributors to the athletic program, including the Lowell-Stevens football facility, as well as to other University causes. We have lost an outstanding professional, a great colleague, mentor, and personal friend. Our prayers and thoughts will include Dave, his wife Edith, and his family.”