Geosciences Department

Department History

Geology has been taught at Union since 1809, when mineralogy was first offered.

During the following century mineralogy and other aspects of geology were variously taught as required and/or optional parts of the curriculum. The increase in specialized majors eventually led to establishment of a major in geology in 1926. The geology department consisted of a single faculty member for thirty years, until the nineteen fifties, when the faculty increased to two. E.S.C Smith, who had been the geology department for many years, retired in the late fifties, and was replaced by a younger geologist, keeping the level of the department at two. In the late sixties the department was dissolved amid attempts by the faculty to increase the number of geologists and introduce a master’s degree program. The department was reestablished in 1985 following a generous gift from a geology alumnus.

There are currently five tenured geology faculty and 2 lecturers , the department office is located in Olin 310. Student interest in the department and in geology courses for general education is increasing substantially at the present time. Appendix I is a more comprehensive account of geology at Union. The Geology Department newsletters can be found on this website.

  • Instruction

    Instruction in the geology department meets three main requirements: courses for geology majors, for the general education requirement, and for the Educational Studies Program for students interested in earth science. Geology is beginning to attract majors in small numbers. It has never been a large department at Union, and the lack of a major program from 1970-1985 certainly kept some students away, and led to other students leaving for institutions where they could major in geology. An approximate idea of the likely number of geology majors can be obtained by comparing data from the fifties and sixties with total enrolments at that time (roughly 1000 students). For the ten year period from 1955-1964 there are forty-seven geology graduates listed in the alumni files, or about 5 per year. This would indicate about 20 geology majors in residence at any one time, or two percent of the student population. If that proportion is applied to the current student population, it suggests a potential for forty geology majors. Some factors may confound this simple analysis: the recent decline in interest in science and engineering among students generally, and the recent slow job market in the petroleum industry ( though this is somewhat offset by the surge in opportunities in hydrogeology). It is at least reasonable to expect five geology majors/class in the near future. At the present time we can identify about 24 declared or probable geology majors, 3 seniors, 8 juniors, 8 sophomores, and 4 first-years. As is typical for geology departments we have a rather small number of entering majors, but the numbers pick up in the sophomore and junior years.

  • The Early Years

    Geology began at Union in 1809 when Thomas Brownell was hired to teach a course in mineralogy. At that time mineralogy was closely allied to chemistry, which was also under his purview. Much of the search for new chemical elements at that time was focused on exotic minerals of unusual composition. Brownell was dispatched to Europe to study and to purchase specimens, instructional aids, and apparatus for teaching the new courses. During the following ten years he added to the mineral collection through his own efforts in the field and donations from alumni and others. When he left to become Bishop of Connecticut the collection, for which he had maintained a partial catalogue, numbered about 2000 specimens.

    Joel Nott, one of Eliphalet’s sons, was added to the faculty about 1820. He took over teaching mineralogy and chemistry upon Brownell’s departure. His close association with geology is evidenced by his inclusion in an expedition to the Michigan Territory in 1821.

    The records concerning geological instruction are sparse during the late 1820’s and early ’30’s. Joel Nott seems to have left the college during that time. His brother, John Nott, may have been involved in teaching geological subjects as one of the faculty in Natural Philosophy, but this cannot readily be determined. Geology during the nineteenth century was typically included in the broader field of natural history and at Union College the professor of natural history normally would teach botany, zoology, and geological subjects. Mineralogy, however, was taught by a chemist, at least until the latter part of the century.

    In 1834 Benjamin F. Joslin is listed as a professor of natural philosophy, a position he held until at least 1838, but he appears to have been mostly, if not exclusively concerned with biological instruction. Mineralogy was almost certainly taught in 1833-36 by Chester Averill, an adjunct professor of chemistry and languages, and he was apparently replaced in 1836 by Edward Savage, an assistant professor of languages and chemistry.

    Chester Averill died of tuberculosis in 1836, leaving a wife and infant son, Chester Jr.. The younger Averill completed a degree at Union in 1857. He subsequently became a member of the first Geological Survey of California, headed by Josiah Whitney (after whom Mt. Whitney was named). Whitney clearly had an association with Union College, as curator of the college mineral collection, and as an advisor to Eliphalet Nott concerning Nott’s investment in the Bristol Mines in Connecticut. That venture was a financial disaster, but apparently not to the detriment of Whitney’s relationship with Nott, for Eliphalet wrote an enthusiastic letter supporting Whitney’s candidacy for the directorship of the California Geological Survey.

    Edward Savage, of whom little record remains, left the college in 1839, to be replaced by Jonathan Pearson, as assistant professor of natural philosophy and chemistry. Pearson is well known for the diary he kept through most of his considerable time at the college, but he was also of great importance as the curator of the college museum, including the mineral collection.

    Starting around 1840 geology became a part of the curricular offering, along with mineralogy, and separate textbooks were used for geology and mineralogy. The advent of a curriculum in engineering in 1845 added a strong practical element, to which geology no doubt contributed through study of ore minerals, mining and metallurgy. In the college catalogue of 1852 a Botany and Mineralogy Department is mentioned for the first time, likely a reflection of Pearson’s main interests. The curriculum and structure of the college was apparently quite fluid throughout most of the latter half of the century, with course offerings and departmental designations appearing and disappearing from year to year. However, mineralogy remained an important part of the Science Course, as reflected in descriptions of Analytical Chemistry from the college bulletin: “When [the student] has in this manner acquired sufficient confidence in his skill, he can proceed to the actual Analysis of Minerals, Soils, Manures, (etc.)” and “Mineralogists will have access to the College [mineral] Cabinet, and can also take a full course with the blowpipe, and in Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis.”

    In 1858, the Wheatley Collection was purchased by Edward Delavan and donated to the college. This important collection has been the core of the departmental collections (described elsewhere) ever since. The close connection between chemistry and mineralogy continued with the addition of the Wheatley collection, and Charles Chandler (appointed to the faculty in 1857 as an assistant professor of analytical chemistry) became curator of the museum. In 1865 Maurice Perkins took over from Chandler, including duties as museum curator.

    Harrison Webster (’62) joined the faculty as a tutor in Natural History in 1868, and soon advanced to a regular faculty position. His responsibility for geology is evidenced by his later assumption of a professorship of geology and natural history at the University of Rochester. Webster was a major actor in the faculty movement opposing President Potter during this time and he left the college for Rochester in 1883. His replacement was another alumnus, James Stoller (’84), first as a tutor then as a professor. Stoller’s duties increased with the retirement of Jonathon Pearson in 1885. Webster returned to the College as its president in 1888 (the first non-clergy to hold that position) and he again taught in the department of biology and geology.

    The first full-fledged geologist at Union College was added to the faculty in 1894 in the person of Charles S. Prosser, who as acting Professor of Geology was responsible for the department of Geology and Paleontology. At this point there was a fairly complete curriculum in geology: Geology, Historical Geology, Paleontology, Economic Geology, Areal Geology, Field Geology, and Mineralogy and Lithology. The Wheatley Collection had become part of the Geology Department in 1890, and during his brief stay at the college (until 1899), Prosser put considerable effort into rehabilitating and adding to the collection, especially with paleontologic specimens. Prosser’s ambitions for a strong geology department appear to have initially received some support from the trustees and administration of the college, but apparently not to his satisfaction. He left for Ohio State where he soon became chair of the geology department.

  • The Turn of the Century

    Stoller resumed responsibility for geology and curation of the collections when Prosser left. Stoller, although primarily trained as a biologist, carried out some very significant early work on the surficial and glacial geology of the Mohawk-Hudson region. Stoller’s divided responsibilities led to a reduction in course offerings in geology for the next 20 years, but geology continued as part of the department of biology and geology.

    The importance of fieldwork to a geological education had been recognized at least as early as 1889, and during Stoller’s years reached a point where an honors course in glacial geology required at least 60 hours of fieldwork, and in 1916-17 an honors course in field geology required at least 120 hours of fieldwork and a detailed report on an assigned area.

    The mineral collections continued to be an important educational asset, and were curated by a volunteer, Dr. D.S. Martin from 1908-1917. The developments of X-ray crystallographic methods, beginning with the Bragg’s in 1912, reached Union College in 1919, when a series of special lectures in crystallography and x-rays was taught by Albert W. Hull and Wheeler P. Davy.

    As Stoller neared retirement, the need for a successor led to the hiring of Edward Staples Cousins Smith (known to the students by various nicknames, e.g. Alphabet Smith). Smith was the Geology Department for thirty-five years, from the retirement of Stoller in 1925 until 1960. During that interval the department can be characterized as a successful, smoothly functioning entity which produced many fine geologists, who left the college with considerable pride in their department. The department structure had finally become formalized about 1920, with courses regularly listed by department from that time to the present. The geology department, however, did not participate in the growth of many of the other departments during that interval, being comprised of Smith and a young visiting lecturer for much of that time. During the thirties the department offered a master’s degree, and the lecturer was often a graduate student working on his degree, or a recent graduate of the department.

  • Late 1050's and 60's

    As Smith in his turn neared retirement, a new assistant professor was hired in 1957. Philip Hewitt took over the department in 1960, and Leo Hall was hired as a second full time geologist in 1961, expanding the department to two regular faculty for the first time. Through much of the 1960’s these two gradually increased the offerings in geology. The increased interest in geology (partly from increased employment opportunities) coupled with generally increasing enrollments in higher education at that time, encouraged Hewitt and Hall to ask for further increase in the faculty in the department. This was bolstered by the report of an external examining committee chaired by John Moss, a member of the geology department at Franklin and Marshall College. The need for an additional faculty member was apparent to the visiting committee, as was a restructuring of the course offerings in geology. On the basis of the small number of geology majors (averaging five for the decade from ’55-’65), and declining enrollments in introductory geology due to changes in curricular requirements, the administration refused to increase the size of the department. While this decision is thought by some to have been made by the Board of Trustees, there is little or no evidence that they seriously considered the issue, rather that it was an administration decision. Faced with continuation of what they perceived as inadequate support for Geology, Hewitt and Hall resigned in 1967. Courses were taught to remaining geology majors through an arrangement with RPI until 1971. The geology department was allowed to “run down” as the majors departed and no new majors were added to the program.

  • The Demise of Geology at Union

    With the demise of the geology major in 1967, there remained an interest in having geology courses taught as part of the general education of Union students, but no investment in a full-fledged department was considered. In 1971 Herman Zimmerman, a marine geologist, was hired to teach introductory level courses in geology and oceanography. For the next 13 years his success was measured, in part, by the number of students who left Union to seek a major in geology at other institutions. Zimmerman was officially a part of the department of civil engineering, the closest entity available to accommodate a geologist. The “geology department” was moved into the second floor of Butterfield Hall when the Civil Engineering department was moved into the first and third floors, following the construction of the Science and Engineering complex.

  • Rebirth

    During the late ’70’s and early ’80’s an effort was made to reestablish a geology department and major at the college. This effort was led by Frank Grigg’s, the chairman of the civil engineering department. A group of geology alumni also discussed the possibility of a restart of geology. This movement finally bore fruit through the singular contribution of John S. Wold, a geology major of the class of 1938. In 198? Wold conferred a substantial endowment upon the college with the understanding that it be used for a chair in geology and for re-establishment of a geology department at the college

    Interestingly, the report of this gift in “Concordiensis” is rather ambiguous about the purpose of the gift, seemingly a reflection of the ambiguity felt by the administration toward a restart of geology. Although one might assume that this backing would result in a rapid renewal of geology, such was not to be the case. The college, during deliberations concerning the possibility of restarting geology, requested advice from an external committee. The committee recommendations, perhaps on the basis of their understanding of what the college considered possible for geology, made what can be best described as “minimal” recommendations. In particular little consideration was given to the needs of a new, modern geology department in terms of equipment and space. Even the recommendation of a minimum of three full-time faculty was just that, a bare minimum rather than an estimate of the optimal size. It is clear that the college began the renewal of geology with a substantial underestimate of the costs involved for a quality program. Since the administration was concerned (and so stated) that the new department should be a quality addition to Union, the new department was placed in a resource squeeze, especially regarding space. Much of this was simply a lack of appreciation of what a geology department really needs for facilities. Indeed, this is a problem extending well back into the department’s history. In the late 1890’s Charles Prosser clearly had some difficulty in making his needs known to the administration, and certainly Hewitt and Hall likewise.

    The geology department was officially re-established in 1985, in conjunction with hiring a new assistant professor, Kurt Hollocher. The new department was allocated three full time faculty lines and Hollocher was the second, joining Zimmerman, who chaired the new department. The department began the process of hiring a third faculty member, but the process was interrupted by Zimmerman’s announcement of his intention to resign to take a position with the National Science Foundation. A decision was made to hire a visiting assistant professor to temporarily fill the third position while a search was begun for a new department chair. Paul Ryberg joined the department in the fall of 1986 as a visiting professor and the search for a new chair proceeded. The search took two years and ended with the appointment of George Shaw as the John and Jane Wold Professor of Geology and chair of the Geology Department in the fall of 1988. During the 1988-89 academic year the department hired John Garver as the permanent third faculty member, completing the complement of faculty envisioned for the rebirth of modern geology at Union. Also during that interval the department added more than a quarter of a million dollars in new equipment to start it on a path to being one of the best equipped undergraduate geology departments in the country. In addition, the first batch of new geology majors began a trend of increasing numbers of majors. Indeed, this history must end just at the point where the Geology Department begins its new life in earnest, perhaps to achieve the promise first envisioned by Charles Prosser.