Morris M. Leighton

1877 to 1971
Third Chief; Glacial Geology

Morris M. LeightonMorris Morgan Leighton, was born near Wellman, Iowa, and completed public school there. He worked as a printer before enrolling in 1909 at the University of Iowa where he received his bachelor's degree in 1912. The following year, 1913, he married Ada Harriet Beach. Leighton studied under professors T.C. Chamberlin, R.D. Salisbury, and Stuart Weller at University of Chicago, receiving his doctorate cum laude in 1916. He taught briefly at the University of Washington, Iowa State Teachers College, and at Ohio State University before accepting a dual appointment in 1919 as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois and geologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey. In 1923, Leighton was appointed Chief of the Survey where he served the next 31 years with "his boundless enthusiasm, broad vision, and appreciation of the basic tenets of science."

An avid field geologist, Leighton published extensively on the glacial deposits in Illinois. He is especially remembered for his work and insightful publications on the Farm Creek section; on weathering profiles of glacial drift sheets, presented in a seminal paper with Paul MacClintock; on a classification of the Pleistocene; on the classification of Illinois' physiographic subdivisions; and on his and Willman's paper on loess deposits in the Midwest. After retirement in 1954, Leighton continued to publish on the Pleistocene, bringing clarity and logic to Illinois' glacial history.

Leighton's vision of what a geological survey should entail began to take effect in the mid-1920s shortly after he became Chief. He broadened the scope of the existing Survey to include a Non-fuels Section in 1924; Stratigraphy and Paleontology as well as Subsurface Geology in 1925; and Engineering Geology in 1927—often cited as the first formal recognition of this specialty field in geology at any state survey. He also added Educational Extension in 1930.

Especially noteworthy was Leighton's vision of a new research program in mineral utilization developed in concert with the "captains of industry" in 1930 during the height of the depression. The program was aimed at developing new uses of Illinois minerals with the goal of creating jobs and speeding economic recovery in the state. The idea was adopted by the governor and the General Assembly in 1931 and led to a 40% increase in the state's appropriation to the Survey and to the hiring of a multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers. These key personnel headed and staffed the first geochemical section at the Survey and conducted studies in petrography-clay mineralogy, mineral economics, physics, petroleum engineering, and fluorine chemistry. The new program paid off handsomely, earning the Survey a reputation for credible and relevant scientific research and engineering by a highly competent staff. The Survey became known as a research institution and one of the nation's leading geological surveys. Notably, many of people appointed by Leighton to fill the key positions created in the 1920s and 1930s later became recognized as "giants" of the Survey.

The ongoing success laid the groundwork for the construction of the Natural Resources Building and the Applied Research Laboratory in 1940. During the 1940s, Leighton was especially proud to have played a role on Governor Green's Post-War Planning Commission as Vice-Chairman; as Chairman of its Committee on Resources, and as compiler of an atlas of Illinois resources. From this input, the Commission recommended a list of needed state buildings for post-war construction, leading to the addition of the two wings on the Natural Resources Building in 1950. The edifices built in 1940 and 1950 represent a special part of the legacy left by Leighton.

Leighton passed away in 1971 after more than half a century of contributions as one of the best known and respected of American geologists and as an outstanding administrator.

Honored by: 
Morris M. Leighton sons, F. Beach Leighton, Morris W. Leighton, and Richard T. Leighton
Citation Contributed by: 
Morris W. Leighton