Grove Karl Gilbert

History of Geology
James S. Aber

Born: 6 May 1843, Rochester, New York.
Died: 1 May 1918, Jackson, Michigan.

Table of Contents
Abstract Introduction
Major works Later life
Historical assessment


Gilbert, a charter member of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), has been described as a "great engine of research." He had an uneventful boyhood, and graduated from the University of Rochester in 1862. As an assistant at Ward's scientific establishment, he received practical training and experience in geology. He subsequently volunteered for the Ohio Geological Survey under Newberry (1868-70), and then the Wheeler Survey (1871-74), before signing on with the Powell Survey (1874-79). In 1874, between the Wheeler and Powell surveys, he married Fannie Porter.

Gilbert worked mainly in Utah under Wheeler and Powell, where he made astute observations concerning geomorphology, stratigraphy, and structural geology of the Great Basin region. He recognized two types of mountain building—fault-block uplift and laccolith doming. He also named ancient Lake Bonneville, whose raised shorelines he used to demonstrate crustal isostasy. In 1879, he joined the new USGS and continued Lake Bonneville field work under King.

The second stage of Gilbert's career began in 1881 when Powell became USGS director and Gilbert was transferred to Washington, D.C. Most of the next two decades he spent as a geologist-bureaucrat overseeing, editing, and directing the work of others. He suffered great personal losses when his first daughter died in 1883 and his invalid wife died in 1899. He became a highly respected geologist and received prestigious awards. Meanwhile, his geological contributions were declining as administrative duties took more and more of his time. Finally in 1905, he had a last opportunity to study hydraulic mining and the Sacramento River in California. His reports on fluvial geomorphology based on this work were among his best.


Gilbert was an American geomorphologist, stratigrapher, structural geologist, and cartographer. He was a charter member of the U.S. Geological Survey and was twice President of the Geological Society of America. He made fundamental contributions on methods of mountain building, history of Lake Bonneville, glacial geology of the Great Lakes and Alaska, and hydraulic mining in California.

Gilbert's father was an artist in Rochester, New York. He finished high school there in 1858 and graduated from the University of Rochester in 1862, where he had traditional training in the classics. Henry A. Ward, of Ward's Scientific Establishment, was his instructor for zoology and geology. After one year of teaching in Jackson, Michigan, Gilbert returned to Wards, where he spent five years as an assistant. He sorted, named, and labelled thousands of specimens. This was his geological apprenticeship; it was practical, though dull, training.

Gilbert volunteered for the Ohio Geological Survey under Newberry (1868-70). He mapped glacial moraines and raised beaches of Maumee Valley in the Lake Erie basin. In 1871-74, he served with the Wheeler Survey of Nevada-Arizona Great Basin topography. He recognized the tectonic origin of "fault-block" mountains. He was unhappy with refusal of his request to publish some geological findings, so he terminated his work with Wheeler. In 1874, he married Fannie Porter. By this point in his life, Gilbert had become a seasoned field geologist with wide-ranging experiences.

Major works of Gilbert

Gilbert joined the Powell Survey of the Great Basin region, mainly in Utah (1874-79). He recognized the intrusive origin of the Henry Mountains, which he called "laccolites" (later laccoliths). He named "Lake Bonneville" in 1875 after army capitan Benjamin L.E. de Bonneville, who had earlier explored the region. This was a giant Pleistocene lake, which he continued to study for several years.

The western surveys were unified under the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 1879. Gilbert was appointed a charter member with Clarence R. King as the first director. King placed Gilbert in charge of the Great Basin Division, and Gilbert immediately set about more field work in the Lake Bonneville vicinity. In 1881, John Wesley Powell became the second director of the USGS, and he promptly transferred Gilbert to a Washington, D.C. desk job. Ten years ellapsed before Lake Bonneville finally was published as USGS Monograph 1 (1890).

Taken from Utah Geological Survey, Public Information Series—see Lake Bonneville.

Closeup view of terraces marking former strand lines of Lake Bonneville on hillside at Bonneville Salt Flats, western Utah. Photo by JSA.
Overview of Blue Lake hot spring in the Great Salt Lake Desert, western Utah. Photo taken from a model airplane; courtesy B. Graves.

Panoramic view of Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah.
Photo by JSA.

Gilbert's career as geologist-bureaucrat left little opportunity for research. In 1884-88 he was put in charge of the Appalachian Division; in 1889-92 he was Chief Geologist. During this period, he investigated a mysterious crater in Arizona in 1891, which he proclaimed to be the result of a volcanic-steam explosion. This was one of his few misinterpretations, as we now know the crater is a meteorite impact structure. However, in 1892, Gilbert was among the first scientists to suggest that craters on the Moon were caused by impact rather than volcanism.

Meteorite Crater Natural Landmark, northeastern Arizona. Views from the rim showing upturned sedimentary strata of the Colorado Plateau. The crater is nearly circular and about 4000 feet (~1.2 km) across. See Meteor Crater. Photos by JSA.

As Chief Geologist, Gilbert spent most of his time editing reports and maps, and he became a confidante and right-hand man to Powell. This allowed no chance for field work of his own. Powell had great ambitions for western settlement. The key was topographic mapping and irrigation development. As a result, Gilbert finally was put in the field again to study artesian water of Colorado, beginning in 1893 through 1895. Meanwhile, Powell resigned under controversy and lacking political support in 1894.

Portrait of the American geologist G.K. Gilbert (1843-1918), picture taken around 1885. In the public domain; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Gilbert's first daughter, Betsy, died of diptheria in 1883, which was a terrible blow. His wife's health declined, and she died a near-invalid in 1899. However, two healthy sons survived these disappointments. Gilbert took a quick trip to Mexico with geologist friends, then joined the Harriman Alaska expedition for first-hand study of glaciers and geomorphology. In 1900, Gilbert won the Wollaston Medal, the Geological Society of London's most prestigious award. He was only the third American to be so honored. He also won the Walker Grand Prize from the Boston Natural History Society in 1908. Nonetheless, his scientific accomplishments were beginning to dwindle.

Later life of Gilbert

For nearly two decades, Gilbert had little opportunity for field work. His loyalty to Powell and the USGS came to dominate his life. However, he did not like nor was he well suited to the "administrivia" of his position. Still, he did have great influence with younger geologists, and he became highly respected as his publications came out. By the early 1900s, his original geological contributions had mostly ended.

His last great chance came in 1905, when he was sent to California in connection with hydraulic gold mining. He studied the fluvial character of the Sacramento River and impact of mining debris. He conducted the first major quantitative modeling of streamflow in large flumes, and observed the effects of the great 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. His work in California was some of his finest, and his reports on hydraulic mining were masterpieces of engineering geology. Between trips to California, he worked on Niagara Falls vicinity (near Rochester, NY). Gilbert suffered a stroke in 1909, which greatly slowed him for a few years. In 1918, at age 74 and still active in the field, he made plans to marry again to Alice Eastwood, a California botanist. The plans were never realized, as his health collapsed and he died five days before his 75th birthday.

Historical assessment

Gilbert served 39 years with the U.S. Geological Survey, from 1879 until his death. The USGS career brought both rewards and penalties. The USGS provided support for his work in the western United States, which is still regarded highly. However, administration prevented continued western field work; Gilbert always felt more comfortable in the field than behind a desk in Washington, D.C. Nonetheless, he helped to make the USGS a respected scientific institution. Without doubt Gilbert was one of the finest field geologists and administrators of his day. He was a "great engine of research."

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© J.S. Aber (2023).