Thomas Chrowder

History of Geology
James S. Aber

Born: Sept. 25, 1843, Mattoon, Illinois.
Died: Nov. 15, 1928 in Chicago.

Table of Contents
Abstract Introduction
Glacial geology Later career
Chamberlin & Gilbert References


Chamberlin was a respected and influential American geologist and science educator, who supported the concepts of multiple glaciation and planetesimal origin of the Earth. He held several different teaching, research, and administrative positions, often concurrently, during a long and fruitful career. Among the more important positions were Professor of Geology at Beloit College, Wisconsin (1873-82), Wisconsin State Geologist (1876-82), chief of glacial division USGS (1881-1904), President of the University of Wisconsin (1887-92), chairman of the Department of Geology, University of Chicago (1892-1919), and President of the Geological Society of America (1894). While at the University of Chicago, he founded the prestigious Journal of Geology.

Chamberlin's career followed one overriding interest—glacial geology. Work with the Wisconsin Geological Survey and the USGS in the 1870-80s resulted in accurate mapping of the limits of glaciation in the United States, in basic laws of glacier ice movement, and in recognition of multiple glaciations. These results are contained in two classic monographs of the USGS: Preliminary paper on the terminal moraine of the second glacial epoch (1882) and The rock scorings of the great ice invasions (1886). Chamberlin developed the terminology for glacial stages in North America that is still utilized with some modifications.

His later interest expanded to consideration of the causes of glaciation and climatic change and ultimately to the origin of the Earth. He devised the "planetesimal theory" for the origin of the Earth, which contrasted with the more-popular nebular-gas-cloud theory. Chamberlin coauthored with Salisbury a widely used, three-volume college textbook, Geology (1906). A generation of geologists were trained with this text, and Chamberlin was highly regarded by contemporary and later geologists.


Chamberlin was a glacial geologist and science educator, who supported the concepts of multiple glaciation and planetesimal origin of the Earth. He was the founding editor of the Journal of Geology at the Department of Geology, University of Chicago. Chamberlin was an unusually successful blend of field geologist, government bureaucrat, university teacher and administrator, and cosmic theorist.

Chamberlin was born on a glacial moraine in Illinois, and the family moved to Beloit, Wisconsin at age three. This was the prairie frontier region in the 1840s. His father was an abolitionist and sometime preacher. Chamberlin graduated from Beloit College in 1866, where he had a classical education in Greek and Latin. He spent the next two years as a high school principal in Wisconsin. In 1868-69, he took graduate courses, including geology, at the University of Michigan. He was appointed professor of natural sciences at the State Normal School (Wisconsin), 1869-73, and from 1873-82 he was professor of geology at Beloit College. Meanwhile, he cofounded the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences in 1870.

Glacial geology

At the Wisconin Geological Survey, Chamberlin was the assistant state geologist (1873-76), and he was promoted to Chief Geologist (1876-82), while still teaching at Beloit College. In a 4-volume set on geology of Wisconsin, he introduced the concept of multiple (2) glacial periods during the Ice Age (Quaternary Period), based on study of glacial moraines in eastern Wisconsin. In 1881 he entered the U.S. Geological Survey, while still holding his other appointments. He was placed in charge of the glacial division, where he remained until 1904. In 1882-87 he resided in Washington, D.C., and he taught at George Washington University (1885-87). During this time, he was associated with many other well-known glacial geologists, including J.E. Todd and L.C. Wooster who later worked in Kansas (Aber 1984).

Portrait of Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin in the 1870s. In the public domain; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Chamberlin's first major publication was Preliminary paper on the terminal moraine of the second glacial epoch (1882), which contained the first map of glacial moraines in the United States from Montana to the Atlantic. Two glacial episodes were recognized. This was followed a few years later by The rock scorings of the great ice invasions (1886), which included more detailed mapping and enunciation of fundamental laws of glacier ice movement. These monographs were published in annual reports of the U.S. Geological Survey. Thereafter, he did less personal work in glacial geology, but he continued to direct the work of several other talented geologists.

Chamberlin's map of moraines in Wisconsin. This map was the first demonstration of fundamental laws of glacier ice flow in lobate fashion. Taken from Chamberlin (1882, plate XXIX).

Later career of Chamberlin

Chamberlin served as President of the University of Wisconsin from 1887 til 1892. He modernized the university from a classical emphasis to a scientific emphasis, a difficult job for which he proved quite capable. In 1892, he accepted the Chair of the new Department of Geology, University of Chicago. The U. of C. was founded and funded by J.D. Rockefellar on the old World's Fairground. Thus, Chamberlin stepped down from full-time administrative responsibilities in order to devote more time to geology. He assembled a hand-picked faculty, including R.A.F. Penrose, Jr. Chamberlin founded and was first editor of the Journal of Geology, which was established as a departmental journal in 1893. It was a convenient forum for publication of his ideas in glacial stratigraphy. The Journal of Geology became one of the leading geological journals, a status it continues to maintain today.

Portrait of Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin in 1897. In the public domain; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Chamberlin went to Greenland in 1894 with the Peary Auxiliary Expedition. This gave him an opportunity to study glacier movement firsthand in a large ice sheet. Also in 1894, he gave the first names to American glacial periods, in a section Chamberlin wrote for Geikie's Great Ice Age. He erected three glacial stages for North America: East-Wisconsin, East Iowan, and Kansan (oldest). He continued field studies, mainly in Iowa, which led to an expansion and revision. His new glacial chronology was proposed in a Journal of Geology editorial (1896)—see table below.

Chamberlin's (1896) classification for North American
glacial stages with subsequent modifications.

Glacial Stage
Modification Relative
Wisconsin In current use
Toronto Replaced by Sangamon
Iowan (deleted)
interglacial (deleted)
Illinoian In current use
interglacial Now Yarmouth
Kansan Replaced by Independence
Aftonian (obsolete)
Albertan (obsolete)

Chamberlin was an original member of the Geological Society of America (GSA), and served as its president in 1894. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, he turned more to broader interests in cosmology. He sought an explanation for the causes of glaciation and climatic changes. Following the topic of glaciation, led steadily to his expanded interest in the whole of cosmology. Chamberlin's multiple glaciation contrasted sharply with Agassiz's earlier single glacial catastrophy. Chamberlin ultimately adopted the "planetesimal theory" for origin of the Earth. This theory held that Earth formed by accretion of small, cold bodies (dust and asteriods), in contrast to the nebular-gas-cloud theory. His overall scheme was presented in a 3-volume college textbook, Geology, first published in 1906. A generation of American geologists were trained with this text. Chamberlin was also an early proponent of the "greenhouse theory" for Earth's climate.

Chamberlin explored the scientific process itself. He developed the method of "multiple working hypotheses," which became the standard approach for several decades. It is still widely utilized, but has been displaced by the "model-building method" in recent years. Chamberlin saw two fundamental modes for investigation of the Earth.

Chamberlin retired from active duty at the University of Chicago and became professor emeritus in 1919. He remained quite productive, nonetheless, until his death in 1928. Chamberlin was highly regarded by his own and following generations. His scientific ideas and text books were highly influential. A whole issue of Journal of Geology was devoted to him in 1929, and a GSA symposium was held in 1989.

Memorial plaque for T.C. Chamberlin at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Photo © J.S. Aber.

Chamberlin and Gilbert

Chamberlin and Gilbert had much in common during their early careers. Both were exceptional field geologists, and both introduced important new concepts based on field investigations. They were well acquainted with each other and maintained a friendly relationship. However, their later careers show a divergence. Gilbert disliked administrative and bureaucratic affairs, and he refused to teach. He remained a solitary field geologist to the end. In contrast, Chamberlin enthusiastically took on ever greater teaching and administrative burdens. Chamberlin's fame as an educator is equal to his stature as a geologist. In this regard, Chamberlin had greater long-term impact on geology than did Gilbert.


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