Theis, Charles Vernon

American Hydrogeologist 1900–1987

Charles Vernon Theis was the first to develop mathematical expressions that allow hydrogeologists to determine the characteristics of an aquifer and predict how water levels in the aquifer change during pumping.

Early Work and the Theis Equation

Theis was born on March 27, 1900 in Newport, Kentucky. A very intelligent child, Theis graduated from high school 2 years early, at the age of 16. Six years later, he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Cincinnati. Following graduation, Theis was awarded an assistantship to pursue his Ph.D. at the university's geology department, leading to a position as a part-time instructor. Theis finished his formal education in 1929, becoming the first person to receive a doctorate degree in geology at the University of Cincinnati.

Theis began working full-time as a Junior Geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and within a year was promoted to Assistant Geologist in the Survey's Division of Ground Water. In his new position, Theis performed groundwater studies in Tennessee and in the High Plains aquifer of New Mexico. In New Mexico, Theis found that the methods available for determining aquifer characteristics were not yielding accurate results. The methods were based on the concept that the aquifer eventually reaches equilibrium when pumped by a well: that is, for a given pumping rate, the water table stops lowering when it is recharged by groundwater from other areas of the aquifer. Theis realized that aquifers are usually in transient states, and that conditions of pumping and recharge are not constant: therefore, a more critical method was needed.

With the help of mathematician and fellow University of Cincinnati graduate Clarence Lubin, Theis worked out a mathematical equation explaining his transient-state solution. He first presented his findings, entitled "The Relation Between the Lowering of the Piezometric Surface and the Rate and Duration of Discharge of a Well Using Ground-Water Storage," to the Section of Hydrology of the American Geophysical Union. In the next few years, the paper was published in three well-known journals, and the so-called "Theis equation" became applied by hydrologists worldwide.

Mid-Career and Later

In the years following the development of his breakthrough equation, Theis moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico to be a District Geologist, focusing on a study of the Rio Grande. During this time, however, he also applied his groundwater expertise to military bases in Washington, the development of the Alaska Highway, mine drainage in Michigan, and radioactive waste in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

In 1951, Theis became the U.S. Geological Survey coordinator for the Atomic Energy Commission. He began teaching groundwater geology at Columbia University in the early 1960s. He was a member of, and frequently held an office in, many professional organizations, including the Geological Society of America, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Theis retired in 1970; however, he continued to work until his death on July 31, 1987.


Amy B. Parmenter


Clebsch, Alfred, and Robert R. White. "C. V. Theis, The Man and His Contributions to Hydrogeology." In Selected Contributions to Ground-Water Hydrology by C.V. Theis, and a Review of His Life and Work. U. S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2415, Alfred Clebsch, ed. (1994).

Fetter, C. W. Applied Hydrogeology, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall,1994.

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