The 2003 Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky Medal is awarded to Peter Westbroek in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the biogeosciences and to the biogeochemical cycle of carbonates.
Pieter Westbroek was born on February 6 l937 in The Hague, The Netherlands. He studied geology at the state university in Leiden where he completed his PhD in 1967 cum laude with Professor A. Brouwer. His thesis dealt with the morphology and evolution of Devonian brachiopods (“Morphological observations with systematic implications on some Paleozoic Rhynchonellida from Europe, with special emphasis on the Uncinulidae”). He used his observations on living organisms in an original way to interpret fossils as dynamic biological systems. It was clear to him that the integration of biological and geological methods generates innovative ways to reconstruct the geological past. This matured into his vision that living organisms locally and globally have a significant influence on the history and the functioning of our Planet. It was this conviction that became the incentive for his future work
After his PhD he received a grant from the Dutch National Science Foundation to study biochemistry at the Department of Biochemistry of Queen’s University in Belfast from 1968-1970 where he started, together with A. G. Lloyd and Sir A. Williams, his “geobiochemical” research on biomineralisation. This line of research continued after his return to Leiden in the Paleobiochemistry group of the Department of Geology. Later, this group was extended with geo-immunological research and moved to the Department of Biochemistry of which Peter became the project manager. With financial aid of the Lounsbery Foundation (New York) and Shell Research (Rijswijk) the “Geoimmunology Center” was founded which closely collaborated with laboratories in the U. S. A. and the U. K.
Westbroek and his group became visible with numerous publications, many lectures and the organization of several symposia on the interdisciplinary territory of geobiochemistry, specifically biomineralisation and geoimmunology. He has not only written several major works for the general public, but his work in the area of carbonate chemistry, particularly with Emiliana huxleyii, has been pioneering. His group has done major work in the area of biologically mediated carbonate precipitation. The innovative approach of this new scientific area gave rise to pioneering insights into the complex interactions between the geosphere and the biosphere, and subsequently into the dynamics of System Earth as habitable planet. Peter Westbroek published his ideas, on behalf and with the help of the “Commonwealth Fund Book Program” (New York), in his book “Life as a geological force. Dynamics of the Earth”.
More recently, his laboratory has produced the state-of-the-art work in areas of manganese oxidation by bacteria, and the role of bacteria in the manganese cycle on Earth. Peter Westbroek is one of the paragons of geobiology and is, among present-day geobiologists, a true leader and visionary.