The Legacy of Hellmut H. Doelling, Utah’s Geology Giant

by Grant C. Willis, UGS emeritus

Helmut Doelling maneuvers a truck out of the mud on a Utah Geological Association field trip, 1980.

Helmut Doelling maneuvers a truck out of the mud on a Utah
Geological Association field trip, 1980.

On November 29, 2023, Utah lost its “geology giant.” Utah has had a few dozen highly notable geologists. However, in terms of contributions to geologic mapping, geologic resource information, and general understanding of Utah geology, one person towers above the others, Hellmut H. Doelling. No Utah geologist has ever contributed so much over such a long career.

Hellmut was born in New York City on July 25, 1930, and his family moved to Salt Lake City in 1943 when he was 13. He started his geology education at the University of Utah in 1948, where he did his first geologic work for the state of Utah. Harry S. Truman was president of the United States! In November 2023, thirteen presidents later, and nearly up to the day he died, he was still doing geologic mapping for the Utah Geological Survey (UGS; also refers to earlier names, Utah Geological and Mineral[ogical] Survey). During this incredible 73-year run (with interruptions for a tour of duty in the Korean War, an LDS mission, getting married, and two years as a professor at Midwestern University in Wichita Falls, Texas) he produced more geologic publications for the UGS (and many for the Utah Geological Association and other outside publishers) than anyone else ever has.

Hellmut (in white ball cap) describes the geology of the east half of the Salina quadrangle during the 2004 field review.

Hellmut (in white ball cap) describes the geology of the east half of the Salina quadrangle during the 2004 field review.

Hellmut began his career for the UGS around 1950 when as an undergraduate he was hired to do drafting projects (today’s UGS was organized in 1949 within the Utah School of Mines and Mineral Industries at the University of Utah so hiring a student to work on a project was common). He worked part time and intermittently for the UGS from 1953 to 1966, with the interruptions noted above. In 1966 Hellmut was hired to head the newly created Economic Geology Program (today’s Energy and Minerals Program). In 1983, former state legislator Genevieve Atwood was appointed as State Geologist with the charge of creating a “modern” geological survey. One of her first steps was to create new geologic mapping and geologic hazards programs. She appointed Hellmut head of the Geologic Mapping Program and successfully lobbied to get three new mapping positions created (I was one of the original three; Hellmut was the only mapping boss I had in my geology career; ironically, I was his boss in his last few years with the UGS). Hellmut managed the program until 1995 when he “scaled back” to part time work as a step toward retirement (at least he was paid for part time work; we all suspected he actually worked much more than full time!). He continued part time through 2003 until, during a couple of tight budget years, he agreed to work as a volunteer, which he continued until his death. He completed over a dozen geologic maps (some 30′ x 60′ quadrangles) during his “retirement.” At the time of his death, he had eight geologic mapping and related projects in progress!

Hellmut’s UGS publication list illustrates his contributions: 6 Bulletins, 2 Circulars, 40 Map series maps, 3 Monographs containing thousands of measured sections of coal bed intervals and 123 detailed geologic maps (most hand-drawn by Hellmut; the only Monographs the UGS has ever published), 5 Miscellaneous Publications (3 with geologic maps), 71 Open-File Reports (many later became higher-level publications), 11 Reports of Investigation, 6 Special Studies, and many outside publications. For most of these he is the lead author, and in many earlier publications he was also the lead draftsman. No other UGS geologist’s list is even half as long.

In his later years Hellmut often said that the thing he was most proud of was the number of young geology students and new geologists that he mentored. Nobody knows the number, but it is undoubtedly over 70—probably well over. And that doesn’t count the many other people who he impacted for the better. Though he was a workaholic, Hellmut cared about and took time for people. I often saw him work with someone who was struggling, and I know of more than one case in which he was the primary instrument in completely turning someone’s life around for the better.

He was an encyclopedia of Utah geology, and it was always a delight to travel around the state with him as he rattled off scientific facts or personal stories, no matter where we went. Hellmut was a notorious field geologist. He always wore old worn out, mismatched field clothes that are the antithesis of today’s techno-gear. He broke most outdoor preparation rules—he never had enough safety gear to survive a freezing night, never carried true rain gear, and he almost never carried water in the field (he hated the extra weight). Instead, he would tank up on several glasses of water in the morning and rehydrate on several more in the evening. Most who worked with him assumed that sooner or later he would die on the outcrop, but he never did. Many of us secretly carried an extra bottle of water, a mylar emergency blanket, or an extra jacket just in case. But he always refused them when they were offered to him. For most of his career, he was determined to go to the field at least every other week, and he seldom broke this personal rule. He did a lot of mapping slogging through mud and snow.

Hellmut Doelling receives the Lifetime Service Award in 2018 for 65 years of service to the state of Utah and the UGS.

Hellmut Doelling receives the Lifetime Service Award in 2018 for 65 years of service to the state of Utah and the UGS.

In high school and at his military base he was a track star and could run a 4:21-minute mile. He put that stamina to good use in the field and would hike the legs off any field assistant. He would sometimes get frustrated with his younger, slower assistants and would send them off into some side canyon while he would power-march through the entire day. He hiked along nearly every coal seam in the state, measuring hundreds of short sections—the published Monographs still stand today as the best information on many coal deposits. During the Cold War years he mapped nearly every underground uranium mine in the state—hundreds of miles of adits and shafts.

Hellmut received several prestigious awards including the national Dibblee Award for a career devoted to geologic mapping, the Governor’s Medal for Science and Technology, the UGA/UGS Hintze Award, and perhaps most cherished, a special award in 2018 for 65 years of service to the State of Utah, presented by now Governor Cox. He is a legend who stands alone, and whose contributions to Utah geology will be difficult to match. The State of Utah was fortunate to have him (it certainly got its money’s worth!). All of us who had the good fortune to work beside him have been blessed by that opportunity.