John C. Frye

1912 to 1982
Fourth Chief; Glacial Geology

John C. FryeJohn C. Frye stood tall in a number of geological realms: research, fieldwork, administration, publications, and public service. Under his guidance, the Illinois State Geological Survey moved broadly on several fronts to maintain and advance its preeminent standing among state geological surveys.

Born in Marietta, Ohio, Frye graduated from Marietta College with an A.B. degree in 1934; he received an M.S. degree in 1937 and a Ph.D. in 1938 from the State University of Iowa. His Ph.D. dissertation on the history of Mississippi Valley drainage was an early start to the dominant research activity of his career, the Pleistocene geology of the Midwest. His professional career began in 1938 with the U.S. Geological Survey in Kansas, and, by 1952, he had become Head of the Kansas Geological Survey while also teaching courses in glacial geology and geomorphology at the University of Kansas.

Frye was appointed Chief of the Illinois State Geological Survey in 1954, a time when significant budgetary growth permitted growth of staff and programs and the addition of new technological equipment. Under his administration, an isotope geochemistry laboratory was established, and neutron activation analysis and low-temperature ashing of coal for mineral matter studies were also started. A Natural Resources Studies Annex building, shared with the Illinois Natural History Survey, was built to provide additional laboratory facilities and storage for well samples, cores, fossil collections, and other materials. In addition, a field office in northeastern Illinois was established to give geological service to the Chicago region.

Cooperative research with the Illinois Natural History Survey and Illinois State Water Survey was greatly increased; that effort is exemplified by a series of cooperative groundwater reports that covered the state. He oversaw the development of geology-for-planning studies in cooperation with municipal, county, and regional governmental bodies. Among the earliest was a 1962 study of the groundwater occurrence and contamination potential in the six counties encompassed by the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. A comprehensive study of Lake Michigan shoreline features and lake bottom sediments was initiated; teachers and students of geology, mostly from colleges and universities in Illinois, were employed during the summer to support active projects and stimulate local interest in Illinois geology.

Within the Survey he increased joint research projects between the geological and geochemical groups, restyled the Circular series, and introduced two new publication series, Illinois Mineral Notes and Environmental Geology Notes, designed for rapid dissemination of research. His personal dedication to research was a major influence on the Survey's increased productivity. Despite the demands of administration, he also accomplished a great deal of fieldwork, his principal relaxation. In cooperation with H.B. Willman, Frye published a major reclassification of Pleistocene sediment units that, for the first time, treated them as rock-stratigraphic units similar to such units in bedrock. In addition to these activities, Frye's professional standing and administrative accomplishments were widely recognized, and he served on many national and state committees, commissions, and panels over the course of his career. After Frye's retirement from the Survey in 1974, he served as Executive Director of the Geological Society of America until 1982.

The term "environmental geology," coined in 1963 by James E. Hackett of the Survey, embodied John Frye's view that geology was a means of focusing public and professional interest on the application of the science to the welfare of humankind. Under his administration, the Survey visibly changed direction to emphasize developing societal issues and environmental problems and to focus on the types of geological information needed by the public, governmental agencies, and industry to address them. A concern for the basic responsibility of geology to society and for transfer of information from the geologic community to political decision makers was among the great contributions of John C. Frye to the people of Illinois and the geological profession.

Honored by: 
Jack A. Simon and Daniel F. Merriam
Citation Contributed by: 
Myrna M. Killey
From Transactions of Illinois State Academy of Science, v. 76, nos. 1 & 2, 1983, p. 1165B1179 (ISGS Reprint 1984C); also from unpublished notes of M.W. Leighton, 2004.