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Grabau, Amadeus William

Grabau, Amadeus William

(b. Cedarburg Wisconsin, 9 January 1870; d. Peking, China, 20 March 1946)

geology , paletology.

Grabau was a versatile scientist, a substantial contributor to systematic paleontology, an imaginative pioneer in stratigraphic geology, and a highly respected teacher and prolific writer. After spending the first half of his professional life in the United States, he went to China for the last twenty-five years. Grabau was the son of William Henry Grabau, a Lutheran pastor, and Maria von Rohr Grabau, who died when he was a small boy; he was the third of ten children. He was educated in parochial and public schools, becoming interested in natural history, first in botany and subsequently in paleontology and mineralogy. Correspondence with William O. Crosby at Massachusetts Institute of Technology led to his attending that institution; he received the B.S. in 1896. After a year as instructor he proceeded to graduate study at Harvard, gaining the M.S. and D.Sc. in 1898 and 1900.

Grabau soon became professor of paleontology at Columbia University after a short stay (1899–1901) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. In the succeeding twenty years he became a leading scientist in paleontology, stratigraphy, and sedimentary petrology, as well as a highly respected teacher. During the hysteria of World War I, Grabau’s tenure at Columbia was embittered by accusations of pro-German sympathies and hints and rumors originating at the highest levels. Moving to China in 1920, he became professor of paleontology at the National University and chief paleontologist of the Geological Survey of China.

Grabau married Mary Antin, a Polish immigrant and a distinguished author and sociologist, in 1901. Her health was poor when he left for China, and she remained with a daughter in the United States. Grabau, rather a stocky man, suffered a deterioration of circulation that limited his capacity to work in the field during his later years in the United States; he became an invalid, requiring a wheelchair or requiring crutches after moving to China. Students, associates, and books increasingly became his sources of information.

The principal distinction of Grabau’s work is his anticipation of several principles of stratigraphy and paleontology that were to become more generally recognized by later geologists. Of North American stratigraphers of the early years of the century, he seems to have been the best informed on the relationships in foreign lands. Yet he traveled to Europe only once, when he was over forty, and to Asia at the age of fifty. He was imaginative and philosphical. A pioneer in sedimentary petrology, he proposed a genetic classification of sedimentary rocks that strongly influenced advances in the field. Grabau early emphasized the importance of the environment of deposition in determining rock characters and organic assemblages: the field of paleoecology. He produced such theories as the polar control theory of climatic control through the movement of the crust over the interior of the earth, and the pulsation theory, which endeavored to attribute the changing distribution of lands and seas to fluctuations in sea level. Moreover, he made substantial contributions in paleontology, both in the systematic study of fossils of several classes and in the interpretation of their phylogeny and classification.

The relationship of marine bionomy to stratigraphy was the subject of a fifty-page paper published in 1899, a pioneering analysis of knowledge of the living conditions of modern organisms applied to the environment of ancient sedimentary rocks. The article is a masterly outline of the principles of what is now the science of paleoecology. Grabau early emphasized the impact of environment on the fauna and its relationship to the facies of the rocks, that the lateral changes in time-equivalent rocks might be analogous to their succession. In this respect he was a great admirer of Johannes Walther, who held similar views. Grabau was an antagonist of Edward Oscar Ulrich, the popular authority of the early twentieth century who held that faunas relate to marine invasions from several independent oceanic realms; and in general he concurred with Charles Schuchert in his emphasis on environment and lateral facies.

In paleontology Grabau was influenced in his interest in phylogeny and ontogeny by his association at Cambridge with the great paleobiologists Alpheus Hyatt and Robert T. Jackson. His own early studies were directed toward these ends, particularly his work on gastropods. Subsequently he prepared several monographs on such diverse subjects as Chinese Paleozoic corals, Devonian brachiopods, and Permian faunas; these were excellent systematic paleontologic treatises in the manner of the nineteenth-century classic monographs in North America, with attention to anatomic details that might relate to genetic relationships. He had the good fortune to be in Peking when the Peking man was discovered, and he advised on its study.

Grabau’s “Classification of Sedimentary Rocks” (American Geologist, 33 [1904]) was a portent of the emphasis on the interpretation of origin, as well as texture and composition, in the classification of the deposited rocks. The original terminology was cumbersome in its having Latin-based names formed from terms for origin, texture, and composition; thus hydrosilicarenyte referred to a marine-laid quartz rock with the texture of sand. The use of a genetic term introduced a subjective element that deterred the direct application of the classification to the rock specimens. Adopted only reluctantly in the beginning, the textural-composition elements became widely used in the middle years of the century, only to be succeeded by other, more sophisticated classifications that further emphasize the aspects he recognized as most pertinent. Thus, Grabau had a great influence in directing the critical study of sedimentary petrology.

Early excursions in the Buffalo, New York, region brought Grabau into contact with the deposits of the continental glaciers. In the 1930’s he developed the polar control theory of the distribution of climatic zones through the geologic record. He thought that the poles remained stable with respect to the earth’s interior, retaining latitudinal climatic zones, but that the outer crust wandered from these poles. Thus the changing relations of continents to poles caused climatic changes, such as led to glaciation. In his day only a heretic could question the relative permanence of present relationships; half a century later, such a hypothesis came to be appreciably reasonable.

Grabau further believed that the continents once formed a single continental mass, Pangaea, that had been disrupted through relative movements among its dismembered parts. Thus, he was an early protagonist of a theory of continental drift, but one different from those devised by Frank B. Taylor and Alfred Wegener. He thought mountains were rising at the fore of the shifting continental plates and volcanism was at their rear. These theories were ingenious and nearly plausible, for few stratigraphic geologists had Grabau’s broad grasp of world geology or his interest in its collation. With the great advances in geophysical science in the latter half of the twentieth century, many such conjectures became subject to more rigorous analysis. Although Grabau could not have anticipated some of this present knowledge, his concepts of the nature of continental movements and climatic zonations have much to commend them.

The pulsation theory attributed the distribution of the principal stratigraphic units to great rhythmic advances and regressions of the seas, which were in turn dependent on restriction and expansion of capacities of ocean basins: eustatic control. He gave distinctive names to his pulsation systems, such as Taconian, Cambrian, Cambrovician, Skiddavian, Ordovician, Silurian, and Siluronian. Fourteen of these cycles were placed in the Paleozoic era, five in the Mesozoic, and two in the Cenozoic, partially to replace the conventional systems. He thought each pulsation had had a duration of about 30 million years, the contraction of seas at the close of each period leading to marked changes in organisms.

Perhaps Grabau thought his pulsation theory was his greatest contribution, for he wrote many volumes endeavoring to relate the distribution of lands and seas to pulsing transgressions and retrogressions and saying that it was further controlled by provincial warping movements accentuating or reversing the effects, of the eustatic movements. As has been the case with other endeavors to alter the general geologic classification, based appreciably on historical accidents rather than on clearly natural principles, authorities have never agreed on more ubiquitous natural spans and thus continue to use the established systems.

The greatest effect of Grabau’s scientific work probably has been in his contributions to the principles of paleoecology and to the genetic aspects of sedimentary petrology. His stratigraphic work was influential in bringing about a three-dimensional attitude toward sedimentary rock distribution, rather than merely emphasizing the faunal correlation of exposed rock sections. His stratigraphy was dynamic, the source of understanding earth movements. He anticipated the attitudes that became prevalent when the petroleum industry added knowledge of subsurface sections to that of the surface outcrops. The concepts involved in his polar control theory, pulsation theory, and the separation of Pangaea encouraged imaginative syntheses of geologic evidence. This heritage, brought to his students and associates, has contributed far beyond the words and thoughts that he recorded.

The esteem in which Grabau was held was reflected in the honors and prizes that he received but was shown more fittingly in the commemorative volumes that were published by Chinese geologists on his sixtieth birthday and in his burial within the gates of the National University. Among his greatest contributions were the stimulus that he gave to scientific life in China and the instruction and enthusiasm that was productive in his many students. For example, in the first ten years of his residence in China, nineteen of the twenty-five monographs of Palaeontologia sinica were prepared by his students.

Grabau was a fellow of the Geological Society of America, the New York Academy of Science (vicepresident, 1906–1907), and the Geological Society of China (vice-president, 1925); corresponding member of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences and the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher; and an honorary member of the Peking Society of Natural History, the China Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, the Academia Sinica, and the Academia Peipinensis.


I. Original Works. Grabau was the author of some 300 publications, of which more than a score were substantial monographs and other books. The full bibliography is listed in the publications in the secondary literature. The principal volumes are listed in three categories: paleontological studies, stratigraphic studies, and textbooks and collative works.

The paleontological treatises contain substantial systematic descriptions of fossil organisms. Because his associates were exploring in regions that had not been known, the greatest contributions are to faunas from China: Phylogeny of Fusus and Its Allies (Washington, D. C., 1904); Ordovician Fossils From North China (Peking, 1922); Silurian Faunas of Eastern Yunnan (Peking, 1926);Paleozoic Corals of China (Peking, 1928); Devonian Brachiopods of China (Peking, 1931); and Early Permian Fossils of China, 2 vols. (Peking, 1934–1936). The Relations of Marine Bionomy to Stratigraphy (Buffalo, 1899) is a substantial introduction to the field of paleoecology.

In stratigraphic geology, Grabau’s first publications were descriptions of stratigraphic sequences in various localities: Geology and Paleontology of Eighteen Mile Creek and the Lakesbore Section of Erie County, New York (Buffalo. 1898); Guide to the Geology and Paleontology of Niagara Falls and Vicinity (Albany, 1901); “Classification of Sedimentary Rocks,” in American Geologist, 33 (1904), 228–247 and Guide to the Geology and Paleontology of the Schoharie Valley in Eastern New York, (Albany, 1906). The Monroe Formation of Southern Michigan and Adjacent Regions (Lansing, Mich., 1910) was prepared with W. H. Sherzer. The Permian of Mongolia (New York, 1931) included description of faunas collected on the central Asia expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History. The Stratigraphy of China was essentially a summary of knowledge. Probably his best-known work is The Principles of Stratigraphy (New York, 1913), repr. with preface by Marshall Kay (New York, 1960), one of the most influential texts of the early twentieth century.

Grabau published Textbook of Geology, 2 vols. (New York. 1920–1921), which did not receive wide usage. His five-volume Paleozoic Formations in the Light of the Pulsation Theory (Peking. 1936–1938), intended to be the first encyclopedic summary of world stratigraphy, was developed to support his pulsation theory. Rhythm of the Ages (Peking, 1940) and the posthumously published, twenty year-old MS of The World We Live In (Taipei, 1961), were popular summaries of his philosophy. North American Index Fossils (New York, 1909–1910), written with W. H. Shimer, with illustrations of more than 2,000 distinctive invertebrate fossils, was the standard reference work for more than thirty years. He also published Principles of Salt Deposition (New York, 1920).

II. Secondary Literature. The full bibliography of Grabau is contained in three biographic papers, H. W. Shimer, in Proceedings of the Geological Society of America for 1946 (1947), 161–166; V. K. Ting in Grabau Anniversary. the commemorative vol. presented to Grabau on his fiftieth birthday, Bulletin of the Geological Society of China, 10 (l931). ix-xviii; and the intro. to The World We Live In (Taipei, 1961), xii-xxv.

Marshall Kay

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Grabau, Amadeus William

Grabau, Amadeus William (1870–1946) An American geologist and palaeontologist, Grabau was a professor at Columbia University, New York, and later worked on the geologic survey of China. In 1940 he developed a theory of rhythms in the growth of the Earth's crust, and of repetitions in mountain building.

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"Grabau, Amadeus William." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . 23 Jun. 2017 <>.

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"Grabau, Amadeus William." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from