Charles W. Rolfe

1850 to 1917

Charles W. RolfeCharles Wesley Rolfe was born in Arlington Heights, Illinois, on April 17, 1850. He was a member of the University of Illinois' first graduating class (1872), earning first a B.S. degree and then an M.S. degree in 1877. After holding several positions in Illinois public and private schools, he returned to the University of Illinois in 1881 where he taught mathematics and assisted in courses in natural history, botany, and horticulture. In 1884, he was appointed Professor of Natural History and headed the geology program at the University until he retired in 1917. He also served as a consultant to the Illinois State Geological Survey in clay investigations.

Rolfe was an energetic administrator and teacher. In his early years, he taught all of the geology courses then offered, including physical and historical geology, paleontology, mineralogy, geomorphology, and field geology. He also taught veterinary sciences and bookkeeping and, for several years, was the University librarian. At the request of President Draper, Rolfe added the post of "squirrel master;" he had the duty of domesticating campus squirrels after the Trustees authorized a project to do so. Eventually, Rolfe presided over a staff of three professors, each of whom attained national prominence. Rolfe's own scientific works were focused on hydrogeology and the geology of clays and paving brick materials. He also prepared a model for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago illustrating Illinois' relief. The model was based on county contour maps that he developed using railroad profiles supplemented with barometric profiles run along the main roads. This effort was one of the earliest to topographically map the entire state. He was instrumental in initiating the University's program in ceramics. Rolfe then served eight years as the first Director of the Department of Ceramics. As Ralph Langenheim has written, Rolfe "can, perhaps, be seen as the true "father" of the Illinois Geology Department's programs in clays, groundwater and geomorphology."

To the ISGS, Rolfe is best known as one of the early advocates for establishing a state geological survey, beginning his efforts as early as 1894, when he pushed unsuccessfully for an appropriation for research work in coal mining, ceramics, and the establishment of a geological survey. Ten years later he was instrumental in having the same bill introduced under another University of Illinois president. The University of Chicago also introduced a bill covering the establishment of the Survey. Negotiations between the State and the Universities of Chicago, Illinois, and Northwestern, with input from industry and the public, resulted in legislation in 1905 establishing the State Geological Survey as a part of State government reporting to Springfield but located on the University of Illinois campus. Space was initially provided by Samuel W. Parr in Noyes Laboratory (1905 to 1909). After the Survey outgrew its space, Rolfe was instrumental in providing the needed space, shared with the Department of Geology in the Natural History Building, until 1916, when the ISGS moved into the then "new" Ceramics Building on Goodwin Avenue.

Honored by: 
University of Illinois Department of Geology (Stephen Marshak, Head)
Citation Contributed by: 
Morris W. Leighton
Sources: Ralph Langenheim, Department of Geology, University of Illinois; 2000 Year in Review; University of Illinois Archives.