Richard A.F. Penrose, Jr.
Geological Society of America

History of Geology
James S. Aber

Penrose: born 17 Dec. 1863, Philadelphia; died 31 July 1931, Philadelphia.
GSA: founded 27 Dec. 1888, Ithaca, NY; now located in Boulder, CO.

Table of Contents
Abstract Origin of GSA
R.A.F. Penrose, Jr. GSA After Penrose
Historical assessment Related websites


The Geological Society of America (GSA) was founded in 1888 for the purpose of the promotion of the science of geology by the issuance of scholarly publications, the holding of meetings, the provision of assistance to research, and other appropriate means. There were about 100 original members of whom James Hall was elected first President in 1889. For its first 43 years, GSA was a relatively small but stable society which had grown to about 600 members by 1930. The single most important event since its founding occurred in 1931, when GSA inherited an endowment of nearly $4 million from the estate of R.A.F. Penrose, Jr.

Penrose was a mining geologist and investor who had accumulated great wealth through shrewd investments in mining stocks. He was born into a financially well-off family and attended Harvard, graduating at age 23 with a Ph.D. He gained much practical experience in field and mining geology during the next several years, and he served on the University of Chicago faculty under Chamberlin. In 1903, he co-founded the Utah Copper Company (now part of Kennecott) to develop the rich Bingham Canyon copper deposits in Utah. This was the primary basis of his fortune. After his father's death in 1908, Penrose devoted himself almost entirely to investments and charities. He was well respected among geologists and was elected President of GSA in 1930.

The Penrose legacy has benefitted GSA greatly. Membership has grown to >25,000 fellows, members, and students from more than 100 countries. One of Penrose's wishes was for GSA to have its own home. This goal was finally fulfilled in 1972, when GSA dedicated its own, permanent headquarters building at 3300 Penrose Place, Boulder, Colorado. GSA is today one of the largest, non-governmental geology publishing organizations in the world.

Origin and early years of GSA

The Geological Society of America (GSA) was founded in 1888 for the purpose of the promotion of the science of geology by the issuance of scholarly publications, the holding of meetings, the provision of assistance to research, and other appropriate means. GSA is a direct descendent of the Association of American Geologists (AAG), founded in 1840. In 1848, AAG was expanded into the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), which encompasses all scientists. By the 1880s, many geologists felt their needs were not being fulfilled by AAAS. Alexander Winchell, his brother Newton, and Charles Hitchcock began a movement to form a separate "daughter" society for geology only. The formal organizational meeting was held on 27 Dec. 1888 at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

At the time of GSA's founding, there were only about 200 geologists in government surveys and at universities in all of North America. Economic geology was in its infancy—petroleum geology was virtually unknown. The approximately 100 original members represented about half of all professional geologists. James Hall was elected first president in 1889. The organization experienced steady, but unremarkable growth to around 600 members by 1930. The primary functions were holding of annual meetings for scientific presentations and publishing a quarterly Bulletin.

R.A.F. Penrose, Jr.

Penrose was the fourth of seven sons of a patrician, financially comfortable family. He received private schooling and tutors for primary and secondary education. He entered Harvard at 17, graduated summa cum laude at 21, and received a Ph.D. degree at the young age of 23. During his studies at Harvard, he was strongly influenced by Nathanial Shaler (GSA President, 1895). Penrose was a tall, physically strong man, who enjoyed sports—crew team, hunting, fishing.

During the first half of his professional career, Penrose was a field and mining geologist. He worked in Texas, Arkansas, Arizona and Colorado; he pursued mapping assignments with the U.S. Geological Survey and did private consulting. Most of his work focused on economic geology of phosphate, copper, silver, gold, and other ore deposits. During the 1890s, Richard joined his brother Spencer in the gold rush at Cripple Creek, Colorado. Working for the U.S. Geological Survey, Cross and Penrose (1895) reported on geology and mining conditions in the Cripple Creek vicinity. They made a rock collection that still exists in the Cripple Creek museum.

Penrose's map of gold mines and claims at Raven Hill, Cripple Creek, Colorado. Taken from Cross and Penrose (1895).

Cross and Penrose rock collection.

Modern open-pit Cripple Creek and Victor gold mine. Overview (left) and close-up drilling a blast platform (right). Photos © J.S. Aber (2012).

Penrose joined the faculty at the Dept. of Geology, University of Chicago under Chamberlin and was editor of the Journal of Geology. Penrose began an investing career, and he co-founded the Utah Copper Company in 1903. His company developed the fabulous Bingham Canyon copper deposit, which is now part of Kennecott Corp. This was the major basis of Penrose's fortune. He sold out his interest in 1925. Penrose made several fortunes for his brothers and others by telling them where to invest in mining prospects.

Deep, spiral-shaped, open-pit copper mine at Bingham Canyon, Utah. In addition to copper, small amounts of silver and gold are produced.
Closeup views of loading point for conveyor belt to move ore to processing plant (left) and mine haul trucks moving ore in Bingham Canyon copper mine (right). Photos © J.S. Aber (2006).

Bingham Canyon mine collapse (2013).

The death of his father in 1908 precipitated a major change in Penrose's career. He largely gave up field geology and devoted himself to investments. He was highly successful and became a multimillionaire, though few people knew of this. Penrose had few close friends, but many business acquaintances and honors. His greatest honor was election as GSA President in 1930. On his death (1931), few suspected his true wealth or knew of his will. Penrose had no children or other heirs who could benefit. The majority of his estate was equally divided between two scientific organizations—American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia and the Geological Society of America.

GSA after Penrose

For its first 43 years, GSA was a relatively small but stable society. The single most important event since its founding occurred in 1931, when GSA inherited an endowment from the estate of R.A.F. Penrose, Jr. The actual inheritance to GSA was $3,884,684.42—nearly $4 million. At the time, GSA had $12,000 in the bank and a loaf of bread cost 5¢. Penrose had prepared carefully. All high-flying mining stocks were sold off during the roaring 20s, and most investments were put into tax-free municipal bonds and U.S. securities, plus sizable cash deposits in several banks. The inheritance was set up as an endowment, from which the interest could be used, but not the prinicipal.

In 1930, the GSA headquarters was two rooms furnished by Columbia University, New York City. Penrose had wanted GSA to have its own, permanent headquarters. This goal was not achieved until more than 40 years later. Meanwhile, GSA moved into a house on the Columbia campus in 1931. Later it was forced to move in 1963, and a building was purchased on east 46th Street. Four years later GSA moved again, and the building on 46th Street was sold to the Venezuelan U.N. Embassy. At this time, GSA moved west to Colorado, where a rental office was occupied in Boulder. Construction of a permanent GSA home was completed in 1972, at 3300 Penrose Place, Boulder, Colorado.

The author stands in front of the GSA
headquarters building in Boulder, CO.

Until 1948, GSA had only one category of membership, by election to fellowship. GSA had become increasingly elite. It did not participate in the petroleum geology boom. By the 1940s, the average age of fellows was 55, and the average age for new fellows was 40. In 1948, a "member" category was created for any professional geologist who volunteered to join, and a "student" category began in 1971. Membership grew dramatically and now is balanced between governmental, academic, and industrial sectors.

Meetings of the GSA have grown from six presentations in 1889 to several 1000 oral and poster presentations at the annual and regional meetings each year now. Meetings include general sessions, special symposia, poster presentations, theme sessions, business meetings, and field trips. Regional sections were established, beginning with the Cordilleran in 1901. Each section holds a regional spring meeting, and the annual international meeting takes place in the fall. GSA also hosts several subject-area divisions for basic and applied specialties.

GSA sections and divisions and associated societies.

GSA has become a major geological publisher, perhaps the greatest non-governmental geology publishing organization in the world. Its premier publications are the Bulletin and Geology. It also publishes a newsletter, map and charts series, books—memoirs and special papers, the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, geologic time scale, and more. To commemorate its centennial in 1988, GSA produced an encyclopedic series on the Geology of North America and a Centennial Field Guide series.

Like all scientific publishing organizations, GSA faces a daunting task for dealing with the explosive increase in volume and expense of traditional (paper) publication. In 1979, a new publishing scheme was introduced for the Bulletin, in which short summaries were printed on paper as before, but long articles were published in mircofiche format. This attempt to deal with increased volume was received poorly by the membership and led to a "publications flap" in 1980. The traditional paper Bulletin was revived in 1981, and microfiche format was abandoned. Today, like many other professional science organizations, GSA offers electronic publications and online abstracts of articles from its publications.

GSA publications.

GSA awards many types of honors and medals. The Penrose Medal was established in 1925 and designed by Penrose himself, for distinguished achievement in the geological sciences. The Day Medal was endowed in 1948 by Arthur Day, for distinguished application of chemistry and physics to geology. Many other awards and medals have been established by various divisions for recognition of specialty and lifetime achievements.

Historical assessment

Penrose was an early example of an economic geologist, who specialized in evaluating and developing valuable ore deposits. He was able to apply scientific methods for mineral prospecting, which previously had been largely a hit-and-miss proposition. Although a competent geologist, Penrose was not exceptional as a scientist. He was, however, a shrewd investor who amassed a fortune. His endowment transformed an unremarkable, small scientific society into a world leader in geologic science. The Geological Society of America is without question among the largest and most productive geological organizations today. Its success mirrors the diverse and dynamic nature of geology as a key component in global environmental and resource issues that face modern society.

Related websites


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© J.S. Aber (2017).