On 10 November 2022, Prof. Basil (Vasilis) Papazachos passed away at the age of 92. His death marks the end of the first modern Greek Seismology era, which he led.
Born in the small mountainous village of Smokovo, where he now rests, he survived the 2 nd World War famine and the Greek Civil war. He studied Physics in Athens University before obtaining an M.Sc. in Geophysics (Saint Louis University) and a Ph.D. in Seismology (Athens University). In Saint Louis he worked with well-recognized seismologists (Nuttli, Kisslinger, Stauder, etc.) and fellow students (Augustin Udias, etc.) and got “...infected by the virus of research...” as one of his Greek professors quoted. Returning from the US in 1964, he worked as a researcher in the Geodynamic Institute of the National Observatory of Athens (GI-NOA).
In 1977 he moved as a Professor to the School of Geology of the Aristotle Univ. of Thessaloniki, where he established the Geophysical Laboratory (GL-AUTH). Less than a year later he faced the 1978 Thessaloniki M6.6 (Volvi) sequence, while leading a Lab without a single seismograph. He handled the crisis with remarkable control, as the UNESCO 1982 report states: “...The Geophysical Institute was under relentless pressure ... but the statements it issued were scientifically sound and admirably objective at all times”. He retired in 1999, but continued to work hard until a few years ago, publishing 24 journal papers after retirement.
It is hard to overstate the impact of Basil Papazachos’ research work, especially for the Aegean region. He published ~100 journal papers, with ~3000 references, covering various topics like seismicity, active tectonics, earthquake prediction, deep structure, and seismic hazard. He led two research groups, one in GI-NOA (1964 – 1977), and a larger one in GL-AUTH (1977 – 1999), doubling the rate of seismological publications in Greece after his return from Saint Louis, and supervising 18 PhDs of several Greek geophysicists (G. Papadopoulos, K. Thanassoulas, G. Karakaisis, A. Kiratzi, D. Panagiotopoulos, E. Papadimitriou, P. Hatzidimitriou, Ch. Papaioannou, S. Tassos, Ph. Voidomatis, A. Rocca,E. Scordilis, Th. Tsapanos, G. Tsokas, V. Karacostas, N. Theodoulidis, B. Margaris, G. Leventakis). Perhaps his most seminal work is the identification of the Hellenic Benioff zone in 1969 (with his colleague and friend P. Comninakis), using PcP traveltimes. His book “The Earthquakes of Greece”, co-written with his wife Katerina who followed and supported him by also collecting historical earthquake data, is the standard reference for Greek seismotectonics.
His life was full of random incidents, that somehow led to his success: After a rabid dog attack in his hometown, he moved to Athens for treatment, allowing him to go to high school. He became a seismologist when he accidentally saw a post, asking for assistants at GI-NOA. However, he was a master at turning a problem into a solution: He managed to study in the University by obtaining a fake “Social Beliefs” certificate (required at that time in Greece, to screen people according to their political ideas), using his godfather, who was the mayor of his hometown. Using the support of his Saint Louis teachers, he established the first Greek seismic network (1965) after returning at GI-NOA. Relying on his recognition due to his role in the 1978 M6.6 sequence aftermath, he built the first telemetric seismographic network in Greece (1981) at GL-AUTH. Building on his cooperation with engineers, he established the Institute of Engineering Seismology and Earthquake Engineering (ITSAK), which installed the first Greek National Strong-Motion Network of Accelerographs. All three networks have further evolved and currently form the observational backbone of the high-seismicity Aegean area.
Though he was appointed at various public organizations related to seismology and received several awards (e.g., medal of Taxiarch of Phoenix by the President of the Hellenic Republic), he had a special relation with Greek media and society, especially after a major earthquake! His calm and controlled scientific and technical approach, as well as his firm ideas (e.g., his criticism of the VAN method), made him the preferred go- to person for Greek journalists, even for journal cartoons and caricatures. His excellentcooperation with civil engineers led to the first modern Greek Seismic Code in 1995, for which he played a pivotal role. This and other legislation contributions were widely recognized by the engineering community, being the only non-engineer seismologist that was a member of the Technical Chamber of Greece (TEE). He always reminded to the Greek society and policymakers that while building safe houses is the only way to minimize the impact of future earthquake, we should also employ measures to strengthen the existing building inventory, which was mostly built without any seismic design. It is no wonder that his friend Kostas Makropoulos, the last living seismologist of his generation, nicknamed him the “Father of Greek Seismology”
As his son and colleague, I will always remember his courage, his tenacious hard-working attitude, and his smile and charismatic personality, hoping that the next generation of Greek seismologists will be able to honor his legacy.
Personal Note: Vasilis Papazachos was a firm supporter of justice and peace. In a public speech for the death of Grigoris Lambrakis, he said: ”... We especially call on scientists to realize that the simple production of scientific knowledge is not the necessary and sufficient condition for its beneficial social use, since this knowledge is used often for war and social oppression. Therefore, scientists have an increased social responsibility for World Peace and must be keenly concerned in how their scientific knowledge is used...”
Costas Papazachos, University of Thessaloniki