The Geological Society of America, 1888-1930:

A Chapter in Earth Science History

By Herman LeRoy Fairchild


Written in 1931 by Herman LeRoy Fairchild, and with an introduction by Joseph Stanley-Brown, this definitive history of the Geological Society of America covers the first forty-three years of the Society. It contains sections devoted to an overview of early geological research, the Society's background, key players in the Society's creation and history, and information on the Society's membership, publications, meetings, constitution, and more.

    1. Page 1

      THE GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA is heir to all of the science of past time. In amount the heritage may be expressed in some superlative term, but its time span is very short compared with the length of human history.

      Geology is quite the youngest in the family of sciences, because of the singular human psychology which seeks the remote and intangible to the neglect of the near and common. Astronomy had an early appeal because the celestial objects, though clearly visible, were distant, mysterious and unattainable.

      Ever since that far-away, primal period when our arboreal ancestors descended from the trees and occupied permanent homes on the ground, the earth has been so f amiliar that it has been held in contempt by the common mind, and until our machine age partly liberated the peoples of Europe and America from manual labor the great mass of humankind was ever busy in the struggle of merely living. Only the exceptional and "peculiar" individual had curiosity as to the phenomena of nature. Observational science, the study of familiar features and the phenomena of common things by any large number of people is a new form of mental activity; and, with the exception of the study of itself in the fields of eugenics and morals, is the highest attainment of the human race.

    2. Page 9

      THESE lands constitute a single geologic province, with their earth study concurrent, and the early writings in Latin.

      The students in this area had the favoring conditions of broad stretches of thick sedimentaries, packed with fossils, and representing wide range of geologic time. This gave advantage and incentive for the development of stratigraphic and historical geology; and the German and French geologists built earth history on the solid basis of organic remains. It is probably just to say that paleontology had its birth in France.

      Cosmic geology also had its birth in France and Germany. René Descartes (1596-1650) and G. W. Leibnitz (1646-1716) formulated the first rational hypothesis of the origin of our planetary system. For two centuries the "nebular" or "Laplacian" theory had quite universal acceptance. It is no discredit to their brilliant work that later discoveries in physics and astronomy have made their conception untenable.

      Georg Bauer (1490-1555), Agricola was his Latin name, was a German physician and an accomplished chemist and mineralogist, whose work was so original and suggestive that he is regarded as the father of mineralogy and metallurgy. His "De Re Metallica," published in 1556, but completed earlier, has remained of such interest that in 1912 it was translated into readable English by a mining engineer, assisted by his wife, which engineer is now the President of the United States.

      A young contemporary of Bauer was the earliest eminent nature student in France.

      Bernard Palissy, "the Potter" (1510-1589), was a surveyor, artist and naturalist who

    1. Page 26

      WHILE aboriginal man was yet the sole possessor of the Americas, earth science had rebirth in Europe through Da Vinci; and, at the time the first permanent settlements were made by Europeans in territory now the United States, in the years 1610, 1620, Bruno in Italy, Palissy and Descartes in France, and Bauer (Agricola) and Kircher in Germany had created a place for geologic study in the intellectual life of western Europe.

      During all of colonial time, and in the years of stress during and following the war for independence, little attention was given to any branch of science; unless the primitive medical study of that period may be excepted. The people were occupied in establishing the new regime in government, and in the subjugation of the forest-clad and none-too-fertile Atlantic littoral.

      Before the year 1800 there had been in the United States some desultory references and brief descriptions of geologic features, but no serious studies. The interest in vertebrate paleontology of President Jefferson is the most prominent; but, by that date numbers of eminent students in France, Germany and England, listed above, had developed geology to a very creditable degree.

      America was a new country and naturally far inferior to Europe in the knowledge of the earth and in interpretation of the processes of nature. Fortunately, however, America was not compelled to develop the science de novo but was permitted to use, in the study of a new and generous continent and in its exploitation, the knowledge which

    2. Page 44

      THIS period of four decades, ending with the organization of the Geological Society, was broken by the terrible Civil War, along with the accompanying unrest immediately before and following the conflict. The years 1856 to 1866 were a time of suspension in scientific activity, except in inventions for destruction, but with peace there came great scientific productivity.

      Below are given some of the more important and distinctive events:

      The history of the ancestral associations has been told in Chapter III.The very deliberate and hesitant movement which eventually resulted in the creation of the Geological Society lasted through seven years. There was no haste to break away from the American Association. On the contrary there was hesitation and long deliberation, which eventually was ended by group action.

      The history of the movement has been told by the two Winchells, brothers, who were the most active participants in the initial planning and organizing of the Society. That of Alexander Winchell is the historical sketch which occupies the first few pages of the Society's Bulletin. The story by Newton H. Winchell was told at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Society, and is printed as pages 27 to 30 of volume 25. While these two accounts cover the same facts and events, they have interesting minor differences, and they are both largely reproduced below.

    1. Page 61

      THE GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY has a clear and honorable lineal descent, traced back through four generations to its great-great-grandparent, the Association of American Geologists, organized in 1840. Its great-grandparent was the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists, dated 1843. The grandparent is the yet flourishing American Association for the Advancement of Science, organized in 1848, and its immediate progenitor is Section E (Geology and Geography) of the American Association which dates from 1882. The Geological Society, the fifth generation in a time space of forty-eight years, is a reversion to type

    2. Page 97

      THE SOCIETY came in time, fortunately, to have on its roll of Fellows several of the famous names in American geology of the middle decades of the nineteenth century; the men who were self-taught in earth science and who founded the schools. To most of the present Fellowship these men are only revered names, but to a few of us who are yet living they were admired friends.

      The writer had a mind to name as a roll of honor the aged and eminent men who participated in the organization and early life of the Society; but, realizing that choice for honors is usually partial and invidious, often unjust and sometimes foolish, he may not wisely make such selection. The reader will choose a few names of high worth in the lists of attendants at the meeting in the year 1888, and from the roster of Original Fellows. But this would omit the names of eminent geologists of Canada.

      The Society has made an extended honor roll, in the list of its officers through forty-three years. Yet such roll for honor is very incomplete, because many Original Fellows of age and eminence passed away before the Society could honor them with the presidency. Some of the following names will be selected by every reader as worthy of inclusion in any roll of high honor in geology:

    3. Page 115

      THE CONFERENCE at Cleveland, August 14, 1888, which initiated the Society, has never been given the status of a meeting, yet the attendance was nearly three times that of the first meeting, in December. While it did not elect officers it did adopt a Constitution and By-laws, and appointed a committee to carry-on and perfect the organization. Like the Ithaca meeting it had no scientific program.

      When the Provisional Constitution was adopted at Cleveland the American Geological Society was created, and the Cleveland conference must be recognized as a prelude; preparatory, if not technically, a meeting (see Chapter V).

      Several of the leading geologists of the United States were in the conference. If they were not there in response to the summons issued by the American Geologist, they certainly gave their assent and approval to the movement.

      The happenings at the Cleveland meeting have been described above, in Chapter V.

      The first stated meeting, at Ithaca on December 27, 1888, was wholly administrative. The record is reproduced in full in Chapter V. While the attendance was small, only thirteen as against the thirty-seven at the Cleveland conference, it was representative of different provinces of the country. The writer had only a short distance to travel, and three members of the Cornell University faculty were "at home" as hosts to the visitors.

      We can only infer what were the influences which chose Ithaca for this important meeting. Probably there was some "politics" involved. The decision was doubtless by Secretary Stevenson,

    4. Page 126

      SECOND only to the efficient organization and the social benefit of the meetings, the publication of the Bulletin has been the important factor in the great success of the Society. Outside of its own Fellowship the noble reputation of the Society is largely founded on its publication, which has carried the fame of the Society and the knowledge of American geology over the world.

      The style and format of the Bulletin is wholly due to W J McGee, and without its excellent appearance the contents would have been less appreciated. The inception and history of the Bulletin, and the related work of Editors and Secretaries, must be told in some detail.

      The importance and necessity of publication was, of course, fully recognized from the birth of the Society. Both the Provisional and the Revised Constitutions placed the matter of publication entirely in the province of the Council. At the meeting of organization, in Ithaca, December 27,1888, an "Advisory Committee on Publications" was named, with Joseph Le Conte, Berkeley, California, Chairman, and W J McGee, of the United States Geological Survey, Washington, D. C, Secretary. The other members of the Committee were 1ST. H. Winchell, Minneapolis, Minnesota; I. C. White, Morgantown, West Virginia, and W. M. Davis, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The quality of the Committee could not have been improved. The addresses of the Committee members are given in order to suggest that the members were appointed for wisdom and experience with printing rather than for geographical convenience for conference.

      The making

    5. Page 141

      THE ACCOUNT of the drafting, revision and adoption of both Provisional and Revised Constitutions has been given in Chapter V. In this chapter it is necessary to record only the more important items.

      The Provisional Constitution was adopted at the Cleveland Conference August 15, 1888. The Bulletin record is in volume 1, pages 7, 8.

      The Committee on Revision was appointed at the Ithaca meeting, December 27,1888, consisting of Alexander Winchell, H. S. Williams, J. J. Stevenson, H. L. Fairchild, and C. H. Hitchcock.

      The Revised Constitution was laid before the Society at the Toronto meeting, August 28, 1889. It was discussed, informally approved, and left to the Committee, with power.

      During the autumn of 1889 the revision was submitted to vote of the Society. The circular of that submission i& not preserved.

      The adoption of the Revised Constitution was announced at the New York meeting on December 27, 1889, to go into effect on adjournment of the meeting the next day.

      The first publication of the Revised Constitution and By-laws is in volume 1 of the Bulletin, pages 571-578. The subsequent publications are listed later in this chapter.

    6. Page 152

      THE CLEVELAND CONFERENCE appointed no officers for the American Geological Society. After adopting the Provisional Constitution the critical business of completing the organization was delegated to a committee, the same committee which had prepared the accepted constitution. The membership of that committee with responsibility to act was:

    7. Page 179

      ATHE GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY emerged suddenly from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter, so a multitude of special and technical societies came rapidly into life, following the example set by the Society, and many of them have no acknowledged parentage.

      At the present time 69 "affiliated" and 34 "associated" societies are attached to the American Association. Also 26 State Academies of Science.

      With such spontaneous movement in scientific specialization it was inevitable that geology, the most comprehensive of all the* sciences, should also suffer division; and that the Geological Society should itself become the mother of special branches of earth science. The first movement was for a section within the Society, the meetings of which would be more conveniently located for a large group of the members.

    8. Page 189

      MONETARY matter is mentioned for the first time in the report of the Executive Council to the second annual meeting in New York, December 27, 1889; and recorded in volume one, page 536. This had special reference to the printing of the Bulletin.

      The same report recommended that immediate effort be made to secure a publication fund of $10,000; and that the Treasurer be authorized to invest, as the beginning of such fund, $1,000 of the money then in the treasury.

      During the three years, 1889 to 1891, no clear or itemized reports were made by the Treasurer. The Council report for 1890 says that the permanent fund was then $1,800. A report to the Council, April 21, 1891, stated that to that date there were twenty commutations of dues; that investments had been made of $1,140.26, leaving uninvested of the Publication Fund $859.74. The Committee on Investments was I. C. White and H. S. Williams. At the Columbus meeting, December 29, 1891, the Secretary gave an oral accounting (volume 3, page 454).

      Beginning with Dr. White's report as Treasurer, December, 1892 (volume 4, page 377), every volume of the Bulletin carries a full, detailed report of the condition of the treasury. Dr. I. C. White was Treasurer, 1892 to 1906. His expressed and fulfilled intention was to acquire the Publication Fund which had been proposed at the New York meeting in 1889. In his valedictory at the New York meeting, December, 1906 (volume 18, page 565), Dr. White

    9. Page 194

      To CREATE and conserve a library had not been an original object or intention of the Society, but accumulation of scientific literature under a system of exchanges was inevitable.

      The Library was initiated by Professor C. H. Hitchcock before any material was received from the distribution of the Bulletin. In May, 1891, with approval of the Council, he sent to the Fellows a circular soliciting material, especially personal publications and portraits. With the July announcement of the Columbus meeting, to,be held December, 1891, a card reminder was enclosed.

      Except the solicitation by Hitchcock no effort was made to gather library material. The donation of the Bulletin to nearly eighty institutions began in 1891, and naturally it brought literature in exchange. The Secretary's report to the Ottawa meeting, December, 1892, gave a list of matter from 36 contributors and photographs of 35 Fellows; about 170 volumes and 225 pamphlets (volume 4, page 375).

      As soon as literature began to arrive from the exchanges the disposition of the accumulating material became a problem. At the Columbus meeting, 1891, the Council was authorized to deposit the material in some institution, under terms which should leave the ownership in the Society. The committee named by the Council consisted of Secretary I. C. White and T. C. Chamberlin.

      The following quotation is from the circular of information sent to the Fellows on January 15, 1892, and found in the report of the Council in volume 3, pages 468, 469: "Exchange Product, Library. It is certain

    10. Page 200

      THIS is an interesting property belonging to the Society of which little use has been made, or little notice taken for twenty years.

      The suggestion of such collection was made in 1889 by H. S. Williams, and was brought to the attention of the Council by J. F. Kemp. In April, 1890, the Council appointed a Committee on Photographs, consisting of J. F. Kemp, W. M. Davis, and J. S. Diller. At the summer meeting in Indianapolis, August, 1890, the Secretary announced the appointment of the committee, and that it had already begun its work by issuing circulars of request.

      The first report, in volume 2, pages 615-630, made by J. S. Diller, gave an interesting account of the origin, purpose and plan of the collection, with the conditions and prices for its use. Description was given of 293 photographs then in hand. An appropriation of $25 was given the committee. The Society was following the example of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which organized a photograph collection in 1889.

      At the Baltimore meeting, December, 1894, George P. Merrill was made custodian of the collection in place of J. S. Diller, resigned, and in 1901 N. H. Darton succeeded Merrill as chairman and Curator. A new committee, was appointed, consisting of N. H. Darton, J. S. Diller, G. K. Gilbert, and George P. Merrill, to eliminate undesirable material, and to publish a catalogue (volume 12, page 479). With characteristic activity and thoroughness Darton immediately overhauled the

    11. Page 202

      THIS had been considered by a committee of the Council in 1913, but no action was then taken. This very important matter was again brought up at the suggestion of the Special Finance Committee appointed for the year 1928—Edward B. Mathews, Chairman, Fred. E. Wright, Joseph Stanley-Brown, R. A. F. Penrose, Jr., Waldemar Lindgren, Edward W. Berry. The matter was referred to the Council by the Secretary May 31, 1928, and the proposition was approved by correspondence.

      At the Council meeting of September 22, 1928, it was voted to refer the matter to the Fellowship at the New York meeting. The argument is concisely given in the following quotation from the circular letter:

      "It appears that our present organization can not handle certain financial matters with full legal authority and that it would be greatly handicapped in case the organization were called upon to handle an endowment or transfer holdings. Looking to the possibility of larger operations in the future, it seems to the Council that the time has come when full legal standing should be established. This is the whole purpose of the proposed incorporation. It will not interfere in the least with the regular operation of the Society on present lines."

      The Fellowship approved the proposition for incor-portation by 439 affirmative votes out of a membership of 536.

      The Committee of Incorporation appointed at the New York meeting was Charles P. Berkey, Chairman, Heinrich Ries, H. Foster Bain, J. Stanley-Brown and Henry F. Osborn. The incorporation was under

    12. Page 212

      THE ANNUAL volumes of the Bulletin, 41 to date, con-A tain all of the published and public record of the Society. This includes the administrative work; the scientific programs of the meetings, and the papers presented ; the memoirs and bibliographies of deceased Fellows ; the registration of attendance; and the roll of Officers, Correspondents and Fellows living and deceased.

      Since 1900 the Bulletin also records the proceedings of the Cordilleran Section; since 1909 those of the Paleontological Society and its Pacific Coast Section; and since 1920 those of the Mineralogical Society of America and three meetings of the Society of Ecoriomic Geologists.

      In addition to the foregoing, there is an unpublished and private record of the administration of the Society. This is the proceedings of the Council, written into three large books, which are in the custody of the Secretary.

      Very interesting items are buried in these Council minutes; important, unreported actions, incidents, discussions, proposals and personalities which never found expression in the annual reports. This applies especially to the last twenty years during which period the Council has had to assume large responsibilities requiring independent action.

      There is a question of propriety as to how deeply one may excavate in these minutes for buried treasure, for the purpose of this public history. As time passes any objection to publicity of the Council proceedings will be lessened, but their interest will be decreased. Not many items in this story are derived from the Council minutes, and these are

    13. Page 214

      THE VISIBLE results of the Society's activity are achieved through the agency of its meetings and its publication. The historical account of the meetings is given in Chapter VII. The advantages and benefits of the convocations are evident. Probably the social benefit is the greater, but the social and the scientific are inseparable. The meetings are a clearing house for social exchanges and balancing of geologic accounts through sympathetic understandings, while the cancellation of errors promotes scientific truth.

      The personal contacts produce a fraternity of Fellowship and an esprit de corps otherwise impossible. The remote ancestor of the Society, the Association of American Geologists, lost this virtue when, in 1843, it enlarged to the Society of Natural History, although it may be thought that the change at that time was for the benefit of science in general. The geologists remained submerged in the mass until the creation of Section E in 1882, and the continued disadvantages led in six years to the formation of this Society, proposed in 1881.

      The data relating to both winter and summer meetings have been tabulated in Chapter VII, section 5. It will there be seen that the percentage of attendance has kept in fair step with the increase in membership. A detailed study of the statistics along with the registration lists might develop interesting relations. Counting of the attendance geographically would probably show that the western Fellows attend meetings in the East proportionally better than the far-East men go to western meetings. Geology here

    14. Page 216

      THE HISTORY of the Bulletin, with its physical and editorial elements, has been described in Chapter VIII. Some consideration of its scientific content and its place among geologic publications is desirable.

      All of the substance or printed matter of the Bulletin may not rank as high-class geologic literature. A balance has to be struck between the claims of Fellows to the privilege, or right, of publication and the critical judgment of Secretary, Editor and censor. All papers are referred to critics, and refusal of publication is rarely based on the adverse opinion of a single censor.

      In choice and quality of matter the Bulletin is at a disadvantage compared with a privately owned journal. It is inevitable that some matter in the Bulletin is incomplete, partial, unimportant and ephemeral. In lapse of time much of the matter will have value only as marking progressive steps in the gaining of knowledge, but many papers will stand for completed study and the final word.

      A weak spot in a journal of such issue is the lack of opportunity for making timely comment, suggestion, addition, and especially for criticism and correction. In consequence partial and inaccurate statements may acquire authority in the lack of immediate correction. Only the experts can recognize at sight the errors of omission and commission.

      One remedy for this weakness might be a short, final brochure, closing the volume, which would carry not only errata but requested comment, discussion, criticism, and correction relating to the preceding papers of the

    15. Page 219

      PROGRESS in geologic science, especially in America, during the last four decades, may be largely credited to the Geological Society of America, and the entire progress is fairly recorded in the forty-two volumes of its Bulletin. This applies especially to the science in the stricter scope, as stratigraphy, structural and dynamical geology, and the philosophic side. The special or correlated departments of the broader science have been chiefly covered during later years by the technical publications of the special societies noted in the preceding chapter.

      Most of the important and dramatic discoveries in stratigraphic geology and in paleontology had been made prior to 1888. The later study in those branches has been the closing of gaps and accumulation of interesting details, but in dynamical, geophysical and cosmi-cal geology there has been remarkable advance. Progress in these three branches has been dependent on development in physics and chemistry.

      In economic geology, especially in its application for the exploitation of earth products, there has been great development. To an extent that the geologists of 1888 could hardly imagine the globe has responsively yielded enormous stores of hydrocarbons. The promising talent from the colleges has for years been largely diverted to the exploration and development of oil and gas. But one benefit from this intense probing of the earth has been the invention of refined geophysical methods of exploration; and creation of interest in micropaleontology.Expert knowledge in earth science has been found necessary in various vocations and desirable in some lines of public

    16. Page 228

      The "unknowns."—The historian in earth-science JL evolution may properly assume the role of seer, because the only basis for conjecture of the future progress lies in the incomplete studies of the past, along with the present status.

      The "unknowns" of the earth laboratory are comprised in a few groups of broader scope, and most of the problems relating to the planet can not be resolved by strictly geologic evidence and methods. The strati-graphic record of the earth's history since preCambrian time, once the principal theme of geology, now offers only details for future discovery, and the life history on the globe is well known in its principal elements. Like geography, mineralogy, botany and zoology, stratigraphy and paleontology have already made their great discoveries.

      The present interrogations of the world of scientific curiosity are mainly biologic and geophysical. The biologic problems are in the province of the biologists and chemists. The physical questions belong to the physicists and mathematicians.

      Geologic Time.>—The inevitable question, "How long ago?" can not as yet be answered. All studies have only increased the estimated length of geologic time, stretching it to a thousand million years. The later data are found in the atomic disintegration in the uranium minerals. The discovery of a tapeline of geic and cosmic time would be of much psychologic and sentimental interest ; yet of little real importance, for the length of such time in years is too great for human appreciation.

      The Earth's Future.—Whether long or short, how and when, is

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