- UW Department of Geology and Geophysics
Profiles of Rocky Mountain Geologists – a continuing series
Antecedent and consequent relations are therefore not merely linear, but constitute a plexus and this plexus pervades nature.
—G. K. Gilbert, 1886 (p. 286)
American geology flowered in the late 19th century, and G. K. Gilbert (1843–1918; Fig. 1) was its preeminent geologist (Gilluly, 1963). In Europe, one thinks of comparable but somewhat earlier eminences—William Smith (1769–1839), Charles Lyell (1797–1875), and Jean Louis Agassiz (1807–1873)—but Gilbert was their equal, if not more accomplished. He was one of the most important scientists the U.S. has ever produced: “Generations have found in him the quintessential geologist,” said Kitts (1980, p. 143).
Volumes have been written about Gilbert. In the several years immediately following his passing, more than a dozen memoirs and memorials appeared. The longest and most extensive (1926) was that of the Harvard geomorphologist William Morris Davis (1850–1934). W. C. Mendenhall's memorial (1920) includes the most comprehensive bibliography. However, the definitive study of Gilbert is S. J. Pyne's (1980) biography, presented first as a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Texas, Austin.
Gilbert's four great monographs: Report on the geology of the Henry Mountains (1877); Lake Bonneville (1890); The transportation of débris by running water (1914); Hydraulic mining débris in the Sierra Nevada (1917); and the account in 1875 of his work with the Wheeler Survey on parts of Nevada, Utah, California, and Arizona total almost 1,200 pages. They span nearly all of Gilbert's years of research, from age 32 to 74.
Though a remarkable amount of his research is still with us, Gilbert, the youngest of three children, was born 164 years ago on May 6, 1843, in Rochester, New York. That year …