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Whitney, Josiah Dwight


(b. Nothampton, Massachusetts, 23 November 1819; d. Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, 19 August 1896)


Whitney was the oldest of the eight children of Josiah Dwight Whitney and Sarah Williston. His father, whose ancestors had come to Massachusetts in 1635, was a prosperous banker; his mother, the daughter of a minister, was a teacher. His parents placed a strong emphasis on education, and Whitney attended the Round Hill School founded at Northampton by George Bancroft and Joseph Green Cogswell, then Phillips Academy at Andover, Massachusetts, before entering Yale College in 1836. While at Yale he attended Benjamin Silliman’s lectures on chemistry and Denison Olmsted’s course on astronomy, which awakened his interest in science. Upon graduation in 1839, Whitney worked for a time on Charles T. Jackson’s geological survey of New Hampshire, but it was a lecture on geology given in Boston by Sir Charles Lyell that determined him to be a scientist, and in May 1842 he left for Europe for advanced training. During the next five years he studied with Élie de Beaumont at the Paris École des Mines, with Karl F. Rammelsberg and Heinrich Rose in Berlin, and with Justus von Liebig in Giessen.

In May 1847 Whitney returned to the United States as a fully trained professional geologist, and was immediately employed by Jackson as an assistant in the latter’s geological survey of Michigan. He remained with the survey for two years, then established himself as a mining consultant with an office first in Brookline, then in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He incorporated the experience that he gained into his The Metallic Wealth of the United States, published in 1854. This work was a milestone in the literature of ore deposits, and remained a standard text for two decades; one of the first systematic texts in the field, it stimulated serious research on mineral ores and helped to establish mining geology as a scientific discipline. The book enhanced Whitney’s national reputation, and he was soon appointed professor of chemistry at the University of lowa: during the same years, 1855 to 1858, he also served as a member of the lowa state geological survey (under James Hall), the Illinois survey (under Amos H, Worthen), and (again with Hall) the Wisconsin survey. His work in Illinois dealt largely with zinc and lead deposits, while in Wisconsin he was primarily concerned with lead deposits alone.

Whitney was thus well suited to assume, in 1860, the directorship of the new California geological survey, which he served, intermittently, over the next fourteen years. He also participated in founding the California Academy of Sciences, the University of California, and Yosemite National Park. A number of the young scientists that he trained–including William H. Brewer, James G. Cooper, William M. Gabb, and Clarence King– laterbecame famous, and one of the methods developed by Whitney’s group fr topographical mapping by triangulation was widely adopted.

In 1865 Whitney was granted a leave of absence from the California survey in order to assume an appointment as Sturgis-Hooper professor at Harvard College, where he was also to be responsible for establishing a school of mines. The school (which was later merged with the Lawrence Scientific School) opened in 1868, the same year in which the California geological survey was suspended after the state legislature refused to pass an appropriation for its continuation. Although Whitney remained as director of the nominal survey until 1874, only three volumes of its findings were published by the state; the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology aided him in publishing, in 1880, the important The Auriferous Gravels of the Sierra Nevad of California, and he himself brought out a volume of general geological observations in 1882.

Whitney returned to Cambridge permanently in 1875, and was reappointed to the Sturgis-Hooper professorship. He continued to teach at Harvard for the rest of his life, although his gruffness in the classroom and his cool, even unfriendly. personality limited his effectiveness as a teacher. His last major work, Climatic Changes in Later Geological Times, published in 1882, drew largely upon the researches he had conducted in the West.

Whitney was, perhaps, not so prominent a leader of American science as some of his contemporaries, and received fewer honors. He became a member of the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences in 1865, and was later one of the few American foreign members of the Geological Society of London. Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, is named in his honor. Whitney died at his summer retreat in New Hampshire; his wife, Louisa Goddard Howe. whom he had married in 1854, and his only child, a daughter, had both pre-deceased him in 1882.


I. Original Works. Whitney’s scientific publications include Report of a Geological Survey of the Upper Missouri Lead Region (Albany, 1862): Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Mountain Building (Cambridge, Mass., 1871): Geology and Geological Surveys (Cambridge, Mass., 1875): The Auriferous Gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California (Cambridge, Mass., 1880): The Climatic Changes of Later Geological Times; a Discussion Based on Observations Made in the Cordilleras of North America (Cambridge, Mass., 1882): and The Azoic System and its Proposed Subdivisions (Cambridge, Mass., 1884), a contribution to classification.

The Whitney Family Manuscripts Collection at Yale University has nearly one thousand letters between Josiah Dwight Whitney and his brother William Dwight Whitney. The Josiah Dwight Whitney MSS at the Bancroft Library of the University of California contain more than six hundred letters to his close associate William H. Brewer, dealing with both scientific and personal matters. The William H. Brewer manuscripts at Yale University relate to Whitney’s California years, as does a published account, Up and Down California in 1860–1864: the Journal of William H. Brewer, Francis P. Farquhar, ed. (New Haven, 1930).

II. Secondary Literature. The fullest account is the somewhat uncritical Edwin T. Brewster, Life and Letters of Josiah Dwight Whitney (Boston, 1990). See also William H, Goetzman, Exploration and Empire: the Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (New York, 1996), a fine survey of Whitney’s activities in West; George P. Merrill, The First One Hundred Years of American Geology (Washington 1924); and Gerald T. White, Scientists in Conflict: the Beginnings of the Oil Industry in California (San Marino, 1968), which deals with the controversy between Whitney and Benjamin Silliman, Jr., over oil in California, and is unduly critical of Whitney. Gerald D. Nash, “The Conflict Between Pure and Applied Science in Nineteenth Century Public Policy: the California State Geological Survey, 1860–1874,” in Isis, 64 (1963), 217–228, summarizes Whitney’ career as director of the California Geological Survey.

Gerald D. Nash

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"Whitney, Josiah Dwight." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 19 Aug. 2017 <>.

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Josiah Dwight Whitney

Josiah Dwight Whitney

The American chemist and geologist Josiah Dwight Whitney (1819-1896) was instrumental in placing mining geology on a firm scientific basis.

Josiah Dwight Whitney was born in Northampton, Mass., on Nov. 23, 1819, the son of a local banker. After graduating from Yale in 1839, he studied chemistry with Robert Hare in Philadelphia. In 1840 Whitney joined Charles T. Jackson as an unpaid assistant in the geological survey of New Hampshire. Whitney studied chemistry and geology with some of the leading scientists of France and Germany from 1842 to 1847.

In 1847 Jackson engaged Whitney to assist in a survey of the mineral lands of the upper peninsula of Michigan. Then followed a period as a consulting expert in mining, and during this time he compiled the information that appeared in his book Metallic Wealth of the United States (1854), which remained the standard reference for nearly two decades. Also in 1854, he married Louisa Goddard Howe of Brookline, Mass. In 1860 he was appointed state geologist of California, where he began an elaborate survey that was to include paleontology, zoology, and botany as well as the conventional mineral survey. The work progressed smoothly at first, but by 1868 legislators, becoming impatient with his scholarly ideals and his failure to produce quick results, suspended his activities. Although he remained in office until 1874, the work was not resumed, and the final reports were published at Whitney's own expense.

In 1865 Whitney had been appointed to the Harvard faculty to found a school of mines and had been granted an indefinite leave of absence to carry on the work of the California survey. In 1868 he returned to Cambridge to open the school, and the following year he took a party of his students to do fieldwork in Colorado. With the definite suspension of the survey in 1874, Whitney took up permanent residence in Cambridge and resumed his professorship, which he held for the rest of his life.

Whitney's second great work, Climatic Changes of Later Geological Times (1882), was based on his western experiences. Although it was an important contribution to the subject at the time of publication, many of his conclusions have since been modified or overturned. Whitney also wrote the articles on America for the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and prepared a revised version for separate publication in two volumes: The United States: Facts and Figures Illustrating the Physical Geography of the Country and Its Material Resources (1889). Equally important for the development of the profession was his preparation for The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia of the terms in the fields of mining, metal and metallurgy, geology, lithology, physical geography, and fossil botany.

Whitney was a member of the American Philosophical Society and a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences; he was the fourth American to be elected a foreign member of the Geological Society of London. He died on Sept. 25, 1896.

Further Reading

The source for Whitney's life is Edwin T. Brewster, Life and Letters of Josiah Dwight Whitney (1909). For background see George P. Merrill, The First One Hundred Years of American Geology (1924). □

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