Virgil Barnes was born June 11, 1903, in Chehalis, Washington. He earned his BS and MS degrees in geology at Washington State College (now Washington State University) and his PhD in geology at the University of Wisconsin in 1930. He first worked for the American Petroleum Institute in Austin and later for the U.S. Geological Survey in Amarillo, Texas. Dr. Barnes joined the Bureau of Economic Geology at UT-Austin in 1935, retired in 1977, but remained active at the BEG until his death. Although Dr. Barnes held the rank of Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and he presented occasional seminars and served on graduate student committees, he did no classroom teaching nor graduate student supervision.
Dr. Barnes long record of geologic research covered many areas: economic geology, mineralogy, petrology, geophysics, and stratigraphy. Much of his activity as a University researcher involved geologic mapping. More than 100 geologic maps were made and published by Barnes. He put together the monumental Geologic Atlas of Texas–38 sheets at a scale of 1:250,000. This task took a quarter of a century to compile. In his later professional years, Dr. Barnes undoubtedly knew more about the surface geology of Texas than any other geologist.
Barnes greatest scientific interest and research, however, was devoted to black glassy objects known as tektites. These first came to his attention in 1936 and were originally thought to be meteorites. He quickly came to the conclusion that tektites were terrestrial in origin and were generated during meteorite impacts with the Earth. His 1940 University publication on North American Tektites became a basic reference during the Space Age and is now considered a classic work. Investigations during the great surge in tektite research in the sixties verified the conclusion earlier reached by Barnes.
Dr. Barnes twice traveled around the world with grants from the National Science Foundation to visit all known tektite sites and a number of impact craters. His long and careful research on tektites won him the coveted Barringer Medal, which he received from the Meteoritical Society in Vienna. His wife, Mildred (Milla), accompanied Barnes on many of his travels and served as secretary and counselor.
In 1988 Dr. Barnes was named Distinguished Texas Scientist by the Texas Academy of Science; in 1993 he received the Public Service Award from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
Barnes’s many decades of field geology, in Texas and around the globe,
were never stopped by the onset of an early, protracted and severe case of painful ankylosing spondylitis, which left many of his vertebrae fused. Even with this condition, he was notorious for out-walking other geologists when he led field trips.
Barnes was the author or co-author of nearly 300 books, articles, maps, and abstracts in his long scientific career. One of his latest official duties was to write his memoirs, On Solid Ground: Memoirs of a Texas Geologist, published in 1995 by the Bureau of Economic Geology.