Elwood Atherton

1909 to 2000

Elwood AthertonElwood Atherton was born in a log mansion near Thirty-first Street and the Chicago lakeshore. He attended the famed University of Chicago High School and the University of Chicago, earning his Ph.D. degree in geology in 1937. He joined the Illinois State Geological Survey the same year and, except for war duty, remained there for 37 years. Even after retirement, he continued to keep office hours, remaining available for consultation and assistance.

Almost from the beginning, Atherton specialized in the interpretation of subsurface data from the Illinois Basin. His earliest projects involved exploration for fluorspar and petroleum at a time when Illinois was one of the nation's important oil producers. Atherton's career was interrupted by World War II when he served in the Pacific aboard the USS Bremeton out of Singapore and Okinawa. Aboard ship, he was a successful boxer.

In 1941, Atherton returned to the Survey, becoming a superb interpreter of geophysical logs and drill cuttings. Concentrating on Silurian, Devonian, and Mississippian rocks, he was the expert professionals sought when facing difficult problems. In this role, he developed data for several classical reports: Chester Subsurface Correlations, The Tectonic Development of the Eastern Interior Region of the United States, and “Mississippian Systems” in The Handbook of Illinois Stratigraphy, a standard geological reference.

Of great importance was Atherton's service as an editor and critical reviewer of manuscripts. For years, the Stratigraphy Section reviewed Survey manuscripts for adherence to official stratigraphic nomenclature. For that chore, Atherton was the ultimate critic and proud of it. The Survey depended on his uncanny ability to catch errors or poorly stated phrases. Among Atherton's most appreciated contributions, however, was his unstinting patient support of his colleagues. Everyone knew where to find him-at the same laboratory station for 34 years.

Among his habits was that of arriving for work before 7:00 a.m. During his early years, he spent an early morning hour working with his stamps, a valuable collection. After two burglaries, he switched to books. His acquisitions, stored at the Survey, at his apartment, and eventually in a storage unit, totaled thousands.

Elwood Atherton was widely known and loved by the Illinois Survey staff. His favorite activity was the passing of candy to mark a holiday, vacation trip, or birthday. He also maintained an ever-popular candy bowl. He was much loved and much missed.

Honored by: 
Charles W. Collinson
Citation Contributed by: 
Charles W. Collinson