An expert on structural geology, economic geology and volcanology, he is best known for his work on the geology of Indonesia. Rein van Bemmelen spent his youth in the Dutch East Indies, where his father Willem van Bemmelen was the director of the Magnetic, Meteorological and Seismological Observatory. In 1921 he enrolled in the Technical University of Delft, where he studied mining engineering with H.A. Brouwer and G.A.F. Molengraaff. His PhD (1927) was based on a study of the geology of the Betic Cordillera in Granada, Spain. He took courses in volcanology at Naples and then worked with the geological survey in the Dutch East Indies, where he mapped parts of Java and Sumatra.
From 1933 to 1935, while on leave in Europe, he studied soil mechanics with Karl Terzaghi at the Technical University of Vienna. After his return to Java, he was named chief of the Volcanological Survey of the Dutch East Indies in 1940. During the 1930s he made observations of activity on Mount Merapi, illustrated above When the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies in World War II Van Bemmelen and his wife spent three years in prisoners camps. He belonged to a small number of professionals who were allowed by the Japanese to continue with their work, perhaps because of their critical need for petroleum. It was during that time that he managed to publish the 1941 issue of the Netherlands East Indian Volcanological Suvey, which came out in 1943.
At the end of the war, he was able to track his wife and son to another prisoner’s camp, and the family moved to the Netherlands, where they lived in The Hague. In 1949 his definitive 3-volume work on the geology of Indonesia was published. This work was followed by major papers in Dutch, German, French, and English.
For detailed biographical sketches with publication lists see Foose, R.M., 1973, Rein W Van Bemmelen – an appreciation, in Dejong and Shoulten eds., Gravity and Tectonics: NY, Wiley and the obituary in Geologie en Mijbouw Vol 63 No. 1 (1984).