Gordon Pryor Eaton was born March 9, 1929, in Dayton, Ohio. He received a B.A. in geology from Wesleyan University in 1951 and then attended the California Institute of Technology, where he received an M.S. in geology (1953) and a Ph.D. in geology and geophysics (1957). Eaton served on the faculties of Wesleyan University (1955-59) and the University of California at Riverside (1959-67). During a period of academic leave from UC-Riverside, he served as Project Chief (1963-1965) for the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, Colorado. Upon his return to the university, Eaton served as chair of the Department of Geosciences and Associate Professor (1965-67). From 1967 to 1981, Eaton worked for the U.S. Geological Survey in several administrative and scientific positions in the Washington, D.C., area as well as in Denver and Hawaii National Park. He returned to higher education in 1981 as Dean of the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. In 1983, Eaton assumed the position of Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Texas A&M University, which he held until his appointment as President of Iowa State University in 1986.
At Iowa State under Eaton's leadership, faculty salaries increased 46.2 percent; research funding support increased; minority student recruitment was strengthened; and a strategic planning process was established; and nine campus buildings were constructed.
In 1990 Eaton resigned from Iowa State to become director of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. In 1994, President Clinton appointed Eaton as Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, headquartered in Reston, Virginia. Across his career, Eaton was recognized with a number of awards, including Distinguished Alumni Awards from Wesleyan University (1981) and the California Institute of Technology (1995). He was also elected to be a Fellow at both the Geological Society of America and at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Eaton retired in 1997 from the U.S. Geological Survey. He has two children with his wife, the former Virginia Gregory.