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Dra. Beatriz Levi Dresner (1930 – 2022)

Chile’s geology figure of distinction

Edmundo Polanco1, Luis Aguirre2, Fernando Henríquez3, Alejandra Skewes4
1 Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería (SERNAGEOMIN), Av. Santa María 0104, Santiago, Chile.
2 Profesor Emérito, Universidad de Chile, Ortúzar 140, Dpto.53, Ñuñoa, Santiago, Chile.
3 Profesor Titular, Departamento de Ingeniería en Minas, Universidad de Santiago de Chile, Av. Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins 3363, Santiago, Chile.
4 Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA.

Beatriz Levi Dresner, Bice to those close to her, passed away at the age of 91 in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 22, 2022.

Beatriz was born in Milan (Italy) in 1930 from where she emigrated to Chile with her parents when she was 9 years old, escaping from Mussolini’s fascism, since her family was of Jewish descent. In 1939 they arrived by ship to Valparaiso where the family settled for some years. There Beatriz resumed her elementary education at the French Nuns School and, later, she attended high school at the Liceo de Niñas de Viña del Mar and at the Liceo 3 in Santiago, when her family moved to the capital.

In 1947 he entered the Engineering School of the University of Chile. Her love for mathematics was one of the main reasons for this daring decision, taking into account the very scarce presence of female students in the Faculty of Physical and Mathematical Sciences in those years. At the beginning of her second year, Beatriz decided to study Mining Engineering and later, at the beginning of her fourth year, she chose to specialize in Geology. There, under the wise guidance of Professor Jorge Muñoz Cristi, she found the passion for the knowledge of Earth Sciences that would accompany her throughout her life. She obtained her degree in 1958 and, together with engineer Carmen Schwarze, they were the first female mining engineers in the country.

Married to her university partner, José Valenzuela, she was the mother of two children, Silvana and José Joaquín.

After graduating from the university, she was hired by the Mining and Fuels Department of the Development Corporation (CORFO), an institution that at the time was committed to creating a geology group dedicated to the study of the national territory. Thus, a select group of young engineers-geologists, geologists and biologists specialized in paleontology was formed, coming from the Pedagogical Institute of the University of Chile where they had been students of the great naturalist Humberto Fuenzalida Villegas. These young people were joined by the experience of two German geologists, Dr. Herbert Thomas and Dr. Carlos Klohn. The engineer Carlos Ruiz Fuller led this pioneering group that in 1957 would become the Instituto de Investigaciones Geológicas (IIG), initiating a new stage in the knowledge of Chilean geology. Beatriz was a mainstay of this group where she served as head of the Petrography Laboratory, in addition to participating in geological surveys in different areas of the country, which resulted in the publication of two bulletins and a geological chart.

In the early sixties Beatriz was sent by the IIG to undertake postgraduate studies at the prestigious University of California at Berkeley (1961-1963), she was the first Chilean geoscientist to undertake (and complete) doctoral studies abroad. Francis Turner, then the undisputed international master of the phenomena of metamorphism, was her thesis director and mentor. During his stay at Berkeley, he also met the New Zealand geologist Douglas Coombs, who first proposed the concept of burial metamorphism in 1960. Both scientists profoundly influenced Beatriz’s geological vision.

Her doctoral thesis entitled Cretaceous volcanic rocks from a part of the Coast Range west from Santiago, Chile: A study in lithologic variation and burial metamorphism in the Andean Geosyncline was approved in 1968, and became an obligatory reference for scholars of burial metamorphism and the geology of central Chile.

His later work was mainly aimed at exploring the relationships between tectonic phenomena, burial metamorphism and the nature of magmatism in the central region of Chile.  It is there where his audacity and genius is revealed in formulating unpublished hypotheses to explain the geological evolution of that sector during the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. The ideas contained in his article Burial metamorphic episodes in the Andean Geosyncline, central Chile published in 1970 in the journal Geologische Rundschau were the subject of intense international controversy among specialists. The referred article analyzes the relationship between load-bearing metamorphism and tectonic cycles in central Chile stating that the tectonic unconformities observed there coincide with breaks (mineralogical unconformities) in the evolution of low-grade metamorphic facies. Equally seminal is his paper Eastward Shift of Mesozoic and Early Tertiary Volcanic Centers in the Coast Range of Central Chile, published in 1973 in the Geological Society of America Bulletin. Both papers reinforce the results of her doctoral thesis demonstrating that Beatriz was indeed a brilliant “idea maker”.

In early 1967 Beatriz was invited by the director of the Geology Department of the University of Chile to join the full-time academic staff of the University. The Department, created in 1964 after a reform of the Faculty of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, was then in a stage of accelerated growth of its different research areas, coinciding with the reform of the curricula of the Geology career. Beatriz took over the direction of the Metallogenesis and Economic Geology area, at the same time she was teaching optical mineralogy. Many of her students still remember her laboratory work with the Fedoroff stage, also known as the universal stage, a device that allows the rotation of a thin section or grain of crystal that makes it possible to accurately determine the optical characteristics of a mineral. Beatriz was an expert in the handling of this unique instrument and was able to fascinate the students.

In 1971, after the nationalization of copper under the Unidad Popular government, Beatriz left the university and returned to the IIG to lead exploration projects aimed at increasing the country’s copper reserves. As head of the Exploration Department, she organized and promoted the programs to achieve this goal. However, she did not abandon her interest in academic issues and from there she took the initiative to create the Revista Geológica de Chile, in order to disseminate the new geological knowledge generated in the country. The first issue of this scientific journal was published by the IIG in 1974 and has maintained its activity until the present under the name of Andean Geology.

His tenure at the IIG was dramatically interrupted by the coup d’état of September 11, 1973 and his exoneration from the institute. Beatriz and her son José, who fervently supported the government of President Salvador Allende, had to leave the country very soon to go into exile, first to Costa Rica, where Beatriz stayed at the university for about a year thanks to a research grant, and then to Sweden to join the University of Stockholm where she was hired as an academic. There she met the Swedish geologist, Dr. Jan Nyström, who would become her life partner and with whom she happily shared the rest of her days. Beatrix settled permanently in Sweden, which became her third homeland.

The exile brought her, however, very hard blows. On June 16, 1987 her son José Valenzuela Levi was murdered in Santiago by agents of the dictatorship in the sinister Operation Albania. To this misfortune would be added later the death of her daughter Silvana, who also died while Beatriz was in Sweden.

Her links with Chilean geologists remained intact throughout her exile both in Chile and in Europe. Thanks to several grants from Swedish institutions obtained together with her partner Jan, Beatriz was able to work for several periods in Chile in collaboration with national researchers addressing various topics of the country’s geology and, at the same time, to help Chilean researchers with resources for their projects and with the cost of laboratory analyses carried out in Sweden. All this at a time when the financing of scientific research in Chile was extremely difficult.

The 70’s and 80’s were especially fertile years for Beatriz’s scientific work and resulted in solid publications in high level international journals.

During the period 1964-1965 she was a member of the board of directors of the Chilean Institute of Mining Engineers, the first woman to hold an institutional position in that corporation. In 1994 the Institute conferred her the status of Honorary Member and in 2002 she was awarded the medal for 50 years of profession. She was also an outstanding member of the Geological Society of Chile.

In 1988, the Chilean Association of Geologists distinguished her with the National Geology Award, Professor Juan Brüggen Medal of Merit, for her valuable contribution to Chilean geology and her great scientific and human qualities. This is the highest award to which a Chilean geologist can aspire.

Bice” shone for her great talent, her simplicity, her scientific curiosity and her great love for geology. Untiring in her work and rigorous with herself, she was endowed with great inner strength and a spiritual greatness that always accompanied her in her life marked by family tragedy and exile.

She was a great and faithful friend, always concerned and involved in the political and social problems of Chile and the world, ready to help anyone in need. Passionate about reading, it was a pleasure to discuss with her the many and varied works she read.

Her companion Jan was her great emotional, physical and spiritual support. He knew how to wisely transmit to Beatriz his interests in very diverse subjects outside geology, such as cinema, archeology, birds, botany and many others. This led them to make countless trips around the world, not as traditional tourists, but guided by their interest in ancient cultures and civilizations.

Beatriz was a reference and inspiration for many young geologists who are grateful for the privilege of having known her at different times in their lives and who consider themselves her disciples. In the words of one of them, Beatriz at that time was for us a distant star that, despite the distance imposed by her exile, illuminated and guided us. She made us hope that one day we could become competent geologists in the field, in academia or in research, despite the limitations we suffered at that time in a profession dominated by men”.

Dear Bice, you will never be forgotten by your friends, students, colleagues and all who had the privilege of knowing you. You have left a legacy and a mark that pushes us to be better, more caring and kind.

Santiago de Chile, February 2022