Celebrating 150 Years of Excellence in Science

William Barton Rogers

1879-1882 NAS President

Immediately following Henry's death, the vice president, Othniel Charles Marsh (1831–1899) a paleontologist, who possessed a professorship at Yale, assumed the office of president while elections for a new president took place. The individual finally chosen was William Barton Rogers (1804–1882), the president and founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His education was in physics and chemistry but he became an expert geologist as a result of his extensive interest in applying those disciplines to the problems of geology, including the relationship between agriculture and the constitution of soils.

Rogers was born and raised in Williamsburg, Virginia, where his father, an Irish immigrant, was professor of physics and chemistry in William and Mary College. He received his education there and was given his father's chair at the age of twenty-four on the latter's death. He became a celebrated lecturer while engaged in research. Initially, he focused on fundamental problems in physics such as the formation of dew and the behavior of currents derived from voltaic cells, but he soon became involved in geological problems, for which he gained fame.

In 1835, he accepted a professorial position at the University of Virginia and at the same time was officially appointed state geologist with access to funds that would permit a state-wide geological survey. In the new post, and while maintaining a normal teaching schedule, he and his brother Henry, who was state geologist of Pennsylvania, joined forces in detailed studies of the Appalachian region that were carried out between 1835 and 1842. Their survey was both detailed and wide-ranging. For example, they marked the nature of soils, the location of hot springs and studied the solvent action of water on individual geological formations and its effects on plant growth in neighboring areas.

On the tectonic side, they devoted much attention to the rows of folded mountain chains that characterize substantial portions of the Appalachians and must have wondered about the nature of the underlying forces that brought about the folding. They studied detailed consequences of folding on individual ranges and wrote reports that drew worldwide attention. The brothers followed up their survey with many papers derived from details of the information they had gathered.

Rogers had a long-standing interest in technical education. As a southerner possessing a professorship at the University of Virginia he had well-developed plans to establish an institute of technology in the state. Unfortunately many of the students in the Southern academic institutions were in a violent mood, being much less focused on education than on the politics associated with possible withdrawal of the Southern States from the Union. Roger's wife, who was from New England, urged him to consider placing the institute in Boston where the climate for it would be much more favorable. Rogers, who was of a genial, peaceful nature, heeded her advice when a militant student “of excitable nature” shot one of Roger's close Virginia friends who opposed separation from the Union. The new institute received a state charter in Massachusetts in 1861. On the somewhat amusing side, Rogers recommended that the institute remain permanently in Boston, and avoid any suggestion of moving to Cambridge. At that time, Harvard students had the reputation of being unruly, and he was not anxious to see that characteristic develop at his technical school.

Unfortunately, Rogers, who was in his mid-seventies when he took office at the Academy, suffered from ill health during the period and it became necessary for Marsh to take over his responsibilities on several occasions. Fortunately, the unrest within the ranks of the membership with which Henry had to deal had settled down to a considerable extent so affairs within the Academy moved ahead more smoothly.

Perhaps the major outside development affecting the Academy at the time was its involvement in matters of public health. A deadly epidemic of either yellow fever or cholera broke out in Louisiana in 1878 and rapidly spread up the Mississippi River, making it clear that some form of action at the national level was needed in the event of serious epidemics. The immediate reaction of Congress was to create a National Board of Health and call upon the Academy to serve as an advisory body. Activities lapsed after the epidemic waned and the Board was eventually replaced by the Public Health Service, which
evolved out of the Marine Health Service.

Rogers died suddenly in 1882 while distributing diplomas at commencement in Boston. While his scientific work was very distinguished, one of his important contributions as president of the Academy was, as mentioned above, the ability to promote peace and calm in the organization mainly through force of his genial personality.

John Wesley Powell
The period immediately after the Civil War saw extensive exploration and surveying of the lands west of the Mississippi River by a number of essentially independent groups, usually having relatively independent goals. The one that drew special public attention, in its way comparable to that received by the Lewis and Clark expedition to the West Coast (1804–1806), was John Wesley Powell's (pictured right) exploration of the Colorado River, carried on as a part of the study of the Rocky Mountain Area and its extensions (1871–1879). The situation called for an essential amount of unification of such exploration in order to provide coherence and continuity. The result, led to a considerable extent by Powell, was the creation of the U.S. Geological Survey, which will be discussed below.

Powell (1834–1902) had such an indelibly strong influence on the history of Western explorations that a brief summary of his career here seems appropriate. Both his parents were English immigrants, his father being a Methodist preacher who moved about upstate New York, where John was born, and the Midwest. His father was a committed abolitionist and gave much voice to his opinions. His son held the same views, reinforced by a visit to the South in 1860 when he was twenty-six years of age. That visit convinced him that a civil war was inevitable. In his student years, he had been intensely interested in obtaining a good education and had the capacity for it, but had to gain what he could in segments because of the itinerant life of the family. Since his father was often on the road, John frequently had to manage the family farm and sell some of its produce wherever they had settled. Fortunately there was a ten-year stay in Wheaton, Illinois, which permitted him to gain sufficient preparation to qualify for a teaching position at eighteen years of age.

Starting as a boy, Powell enjoyed roaming alone through the meadows, woods and along the streams and rivers examining and absorbing all details of the natural setting. He collected fossils and mollusks. When somewhat older he began boating, again alone, along extended stretches of the larger rivers. He joined and was an active member of the Illinois State Society of Natural History.

When the Civil War started in 1861 he enlisted as a private at once, but was soon given the rank of Second Lieutenant. He recruited an artillery company for which he was commissioned captain. He received a severe bullet wound in his right wrist in the battle of Shiloh (April 1862). The wound was poorly treated and required amputation below the elbow. It left him with periodic nerve-induced pains that were alleviated by remedial neurosurgery only late in his life.

On returning to the war, he became associated with General Grant and was commissioned first as Major of Artillery and then as Chief of Artillery. He was fully in service during the siege of Vicksburg in March of 1863, spending much of the considerable spare time extracting fossils from the protective trench-work that had been engineered by the Union Army. He was given an honorable discharge in January of 1865 when Grant was involved in the final attack on Richmond. Powell abhorred war, but gained great experience in leadership during his years of service.

Returning to Illinois, he was offered the position of clerk of DuPage County but accepted a less lucrative post as professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan College at Bloomington and lecturer and curator of the Museum at Illinois Normal University nearby. In 1867, with aid from the Illinois State Society of Natural History, he led a trip across the plains to the Rocky Mountains with a group of sixteen “naturalists, students, and amateurs”. They had a rich experience in the mountainous wilderness. General Grant helped the group obtain railroad passes and inexpensive access to government stores at army posts.

This journey was followed the next year by a longer one supported by several colleges and the Smithsonian. Powell and some of the group wintered over in the valley of the White River, a tributary of the Green River, which in turn is a tributary of the Colorado. Here Powell accomplished two important objectives. He made the basic plans for his famous journey by boat down the Colorado and began to cultivate friendships within Indian tribes, an educational exercise that eventually made him a well-recognized expert on Indian ethnology.

One of his friends, fearful of the planned journey on the Colorado River, warned him of the possible existence of impassible falls in the river. Powell replied in effect: “Rapids yes, but a muddy gritty river like the Colorado creates a relatively smooth bottom!” In fact they eventually encountered only one significant waterfall that was the product of a relatively recent basaltic intrusion.

The river journey, which was financed by a special appropriation of Congress, started in May of 1869. The group embarked in four boats onto the Green River where they had easy access and continued on to the Colorado. The rest is a part of national history. They emerged three months later on August 2nd. The press had given them up for lost and they enjoyed reading their own obituaries. Three members of the party had tired of the continuing hardships and had climbed out of the canyon somewhere midway. The trio were befriended at first by an Indian tribe, but then put to death when an Indian from another tribe mistakenly identified them for three miners who had murdered a young Indian woman. He supported his accusation by stating that it was not possible to climb out of the canyon at the place they claimed.

The detailed reports of the river journey trickled out in various forms and pieces over the next quarter century. They made it evident that Powell was not only an individual with an iron will and matching stamina in spite of his disability, but commanded the deep loyalty of those who were a match for his spirit and were willing to accept his leadership.

Powell continued these exploratory adventures for several years during which he made geological surveys of the Rocky Mountains and detailed studies of the potential uses of the western dry lands. He concluded that the latter had very limited use for agriculture because of the lack of water. Not only was it highly variable at best, but in most places, canal-fed irrigation offered the only possible solution when at all feasible. He also began to advocate federal control of water supplies originating on public lands in the West. He did his best to warn immigrants to the West to be realistic in their expectations, especially when considering farming the dry lands.

One of his special interests lay in discovering ancient rivers whose original course had been through relatively flat land and which had succeeded in retaining that course in spite of the subsequent development of mountain ranges along their path. The rivers had succeeded in cutting through the rising land as fast as it emerged.

In June of 1878 the Congress called on the Academy to carry out a study to find good ways of consolidating the many independent surveys of the West that were being made for diverse purposes. The Academy selected Powell as the obvious chairman, even though he was not yet a member. The end result was the creation of the United States Geological Survey, which was empowered to deal with all related issues. The bill was passed in 1879. The first appointment as director went to Clarence King, a noted geologist who had longstanding relations with the government and had led what became known as The Fortieth Parallel Survey. Powell as chairman had ruled himself out as a candidate because of his role in the study. Instead he was appointed to the directorship of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian, a post he held for the rest of his life.

King detested administrative work and resigned in two years, whereupon Powell received the appointment. He tackled the position with the full force of his personality and gathered together a highly  competent and loyal staff. Among his many accomplishments, he started the production of the famous Geological Survey Maps of the country, making them readily available to the population at low cost. All went well until the late 1880s when he took on the problem of trying to gain control of irrigation waters originating in public lands. Private interests that opposed his plans exercised their influence in Congress and succeeded in having his budget and staff appointments severely cut in each of two successive years. He resigned in 1894 and turned his attention to ethnology. He was one of the founders of the Cosmos Club, a gathering place of intellectuals in Washington. The early meetings took place in his home. It was probably a spin-off from the Washington Philosophical Society founded by Joseph Henry.

Continue reading next chapter: Othniel Charles Marsh

Return to: A Selection of Highlights from the History of the National Academy of Sciences, 1863 - 2005

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