William Siri, 85; Research Led Biophysicist Up World’s Peaks

Times Staff Writer

William “Will” Siri, a leading biophysics researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who climbed some of the world’s tallest mountains in the name of science and was deputy leader and scientific coordinator of the first American expedition to successfully climb Mt. Everest, in 1963, has died. He was 85.

Siri, a past president of the Sierra Club and a longtime environmental activist, died Aug. 24 of pneumonia at his home in Berkeley after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Jean.

Regarded as one of the world’s foremost mountain-climbing scientists, Siri participated in or led scientific expeditions to peaks around the world to study the effects of altitude and oxygen deprivation on the human body, including his own.

In 1957, he was the field leader for the International Physiological Expedition to Antarctica, a joint U.S. and British scientific expedition to study the effects of extreme cold on the blood and certain diseases of the blood.

Siri had two University of California mountain-climbing expeditions to the Peruvian Andes behind him when he led the 1954 California Himalayan Expedition, an effort to reach the top of 27,765-foot Makalu, the fifth-highest peak in the world. The 10-man party made it as high as 23,000 feet before bad weather forced abandonment of the effort.


Jean Siri recalled Friday that she hadn’t heard from her husband for six months when he sent runners down the mountain to deliver a message to her back home in California: He needed $10,000 immediately to pay the climbers’ team of Sherpa guides and porters.

“I raised it, but they came home looking awful hungry and skinny,” she said. “They must have been without food for a while. It was a very underfunded expedition.”

While on the same venture, Siri helped rescue a member of Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbing team from an icy crevasse. A year earlier, Hillary and his Nepalese Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, had made history when they became the first men to reach the summit of Everest, the world’s tallest mountain.

Ten years after Hillary and Norgay’s feat, Siri made news himself as deputy leader and scientific coordinator of the 1963 expedition that succeeded in putting five Americans atop the 29,035-foot peak. Thomas Hornbein and William Unsoeld scaled the mountain’s previously unconquered west ridge and met up with Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad, who reached the summit via the traditional south ridge route. It was the first time any nation had four of its citizen atop Everest on one day. James Whittaker, accompanied by a Sherpa, made it to the top via the southern route during the same expedition.

Siri, who did not attempt to reach the summit, spent most of his time at the 22,000-foot base camp but was at the 24,000-foot level for several days.

“There are no trees, brush or animals up there,” he later told a reporter. “Just a few birds, which, from the looks of the way they acted around us, exist by living off expeditions.”

Before the Everest climb, in which one team member was killed in an icy fall early in the ascent, Siri had spent four days in a decompression chamber at Donner Laboratory on the UC Berkeley campus in an experiment to measure physiological response to high altitudes. With that experiment, and with the Everest climb, he was interested in the stress induced by hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and high-altitude fatigue, and the resulting effects on the production of red blood cells.

“If nothing else,” Siri told a San Francisco newspaper after the Everest climb, “we proved to the world that not all Americans are soft and flabby.”

The Siris and other Everest expedition members and their wives were honored by President Kennedy at the White House.

Siri led another expedition to the Himalayas in 1968. But this time, his wife said, “it was just for fun; I don’t think they climbed anything serious.”

Jean Siri, a two-time mayor of El Cerrito, Calif., was a biologist at Donner Laboratory -- part of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory -- when she met her husband there in the late 1940s.

“He loved mountain climbing, and he was a good climber, good skier -- all that stuff,” she said. He was “tough as nails. I can tell you, even before he died, he was strong as a mule.”

Born in Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 1919, Siri earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Chicago in 1942. After joining the Berkeley Lab a year later, he was sent to work in the radiation laboratory of the Manhattan Project.

Returning to Berkeley after the war, Siri helped medical physicist John Lawrence launch the field of nuclear medicine -- the use of radioisotopes to study human physiology.

Although Siri’s primary focus was employing the radioisotopes to study human red blood cells, he grew increasingly interested in how the blood responded to physiological stress.

A Sierra Club member since he first arrived in Berkeley, Siri served as the organization’s president from 1964 to 1966. He was on the club’s board of trustees until 1978 and on the club’s National Advisory Council for many years. In 1994, he received the Sierra Club’s prestigious John Muir Award.

In addition to his wife of 54 years, Siri is survived by daughters Lynn Siri Kimsey of Davis, Calif., and Anne Siri of Philo, Calif.; and two grandchildren.

At Siri’s request, no services were held.