Thomas C. Chamberlin

1843 to 1928
Advocate; Glacial Geology

Thomas C. ChamberlinThe Geological Society of America's Memorial of T.C. Chamberlin, published in 1929, begins "The names of great original thinkers are milestones along the path of exploration that penetrates the domain of the unknown. Chamberlin's is the latest." Anyone reading this memorial cannot doubt his towering intellect and the extremely good fortune that made him the first geological Commissioner of the new Illinois State Geological Survey. His ideas and influence were in good part responsible for its formation in 1905.

Born in Mattoon, Illinois (it was noted by Chamberlin that his birthplace was on the Shelbyville Moraine), he received his A.B. and A.M. degrees from Beloit College in 1866 and 1869, respectively, and his Ph.D. from the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin in 1882. He held many professional positions throughout his career, beginning as Principal of Delavan (Wisconsin) High School and continuing through professorships of natural science and geology at State Normal School, Whitewater, Wisconsin; Beloit College; Columbian University; to President of the University of Wisconsin; and head of the then new Department of Geology at the University of Chicago. Chamberlin was also Chief Geologist of the Wisconsin Geological Survey, a geologist with the Glacial Division of the U.S. Geological Survey, and a research associate with the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Beyond these professional positions, however, he was a great master of research with ingenuity, initiative, independence, and insight. Chamberlin lived during an epoch when the sciences were growing vigorously, and he became intrigued by the cause of climatic change that produced the sediments and landscape associated with the Ice Age. "Led by him with an intellectual leadership that has never been questioned, a group of able geologists has analyzed the drift sheets of North America, mapped their extent and detailed structure, and contributed a thorough understanding of the Pleistocene record. It is a great contribution. It demanded capacity for intimate and discriminating observation of differences where others saw sameness-for careful and alternative interpretation on the basis of process, stage, and environment, for balanced judgment and impartial testing of probabilities." His inquiries led him to the fields of atmospheric studies, origins of the Earth, physics, and astronomy.

Thomas C. Chamberlin's name ranks always first among geologists, as readily acknowledged by H. Foster Bain, the Survey's first director, who also stated: "Fortunate indeed was the organization [that had men such as Chamberlin] as friends and founders."

Honored by: 
Morris M. Leighton's sons, F. Beach Leighton, Morris W. Leighton, and Richard T. Leighton
Citation Contributed by: 
Myrna M. Killey
From his memorial, GSA Bulletin, v. 40, 1929.