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Meinzer, Oscar Edward


(b. near Davis, Illinois, 28 November 1876; d. Washington, D. C., 14 June 1948)

ground-water hydrology.

Meinzer was the son of William and Mary Julia Meinzer. He graduated magna cum laude from Beloit College, Wisconsin, in 1901. He was a graduate student in geology at the University of Chicago (1906–1907) and received the Ph.D., magna cum laude, in 1922. His career in the United States Geological Survey began as geologic aide in June 1906. He married Alice Breckenridge Crawford in October 1906. Meinzer became junior geologist on ground-water investigations (1907), acting chief (1912), and chief, ground-water division (1913), a post which he held until retirement on 30 November 1946. In that same year he received an honorary doctorate from Beloit College.

During his thirty-four years as the chief, groundwater division (now branch) of the United States Geological Survey, Meinzer became the main architect in development of the modern science of ground-water hydrology. He organized and trained a large number of scientists and engineers, many of whom became recognized international authorities in this vastly expanded field. When he began, the study of underground water was an insignificant and poorly appreciated art.

During his early years as chief, he initiated the development of the science of ground-water hydrology. He realized that in addition to locating and defining ground-water basins, as had been the earlier practice, the principles governing occurrence, movement, and discharge of ground water must be determined, and methods had to be devised and tested for determining the quantity and quality of available ground water. In order to standardize terms and describe principles, he prepared Outline of Ground-Water Hydrology, With Definitions, and The Occurrence of Ground Water in the United States, With a Discussion of Principles. Among his definitions he proposed the term “phreatophyte” taken from Greek roots meaning a “well plant,” which like a water well taps the groundwater supply especially in arid regions in contrast to most plants which derive their water from soil moisture in humid regions. That term, together with many of his logical definitions, continues to be used. In his definitions he explained the significant difference between “porosity” and “effective porosity” and the relation of these terms to specific yield, which many hydrologists failed to recognize.

The need for more precise and comprehensive methods to determine the perennial yield of aquifers led him to devise a quantitative approach. In a report, Outline of Methods for Estimating Ground-Water Supplies, Meinzer described twenty-six approaches, eleven of which are applicable, though not exclusively, to aquifers and parts of aquifers under water table conditions. Five of the methods are applicable to aquifers in which water moves considerable distances from intake to discharge areas.

As part of the study of ground-water hydrology, Meinzer established a laboratory, where, along with other experiments and tests, he was able to prove that as long as the flow of water through granular material is laminar, the vetocity is directly proportional to the hydraulic gradient—that is, the flow conforms to Darcy’s law. For field investigations Meinzer proposed and encouraged development of geophysical methods and such instrumentation as automatic water-stage recorders on wells. He was in the vanguard of those pioneers who urged pumping tests and other analytical tests on wells to obtain quantitative information on the water-bearing properties of aquifers. Among these was the method of Gunter Thiem, which was tested in the field and described by L. K. Wenzel.

The quantitative methods described by Wenzel, and those developed by C. V. Theis, and later C. E. Jacobs and others under Meinzer’s supervision, provided additional means for determining the perennial yield of aquifers.

Meinzer also emphasized the need for studying the chemical quality and geochemistry of water, as well as salt-water encroachment in aquifers. Among the research studies on geochemistry were investigations of natural softening of water and the source of some elements, such as fluoride. One of the early reports, prepared by John S. Brown under Meinzer’s supervision, introduced to this country the Ghyben-Herzberg formula to estimate the extent of salt-water encroachment in aquifers in which fresh water is in dynamic equilibrium with sea water.

Meinzer recognized that aquifers are functional components of the hydrologic cycle and that groundwater investigations require special skills of the geologist, engineer, physicist, chemist, and others. He pioneered in the teaming of men of these disciplines, in particular geologists and engineers. Beginning about 1930, as the demand for ground-water investigations began to increase rapidly, Meinzer and his assistants trained and supervised dozens of geologists and engineers, manengineers, mans of whom, with that fundamental training, were able to develop more sophisticated tools and techniques.


I. Original Works. Meinzer was author or coauthor of more than 100 reports and papers dealing with ground water, as listed on pages 202–206 of a memorial to Oscar Edward Meinzer by A. Nelson Sayre, published in Proceedings Volume (1948) of the Geological Society of America (April 1949), 197–206. “The Occurrence of Ground Water in the United States, With a Discussion of Principles,” was published in 1923 as U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 489. The report served as his dissertation for his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.

His “Outline of Ground-Water Hydrology, With Definitions” was also published in 1923 as U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 489. His definition of the coefficient of hydraulic permeability as used in hydrologic work of the U.S. Geological survey, defined and illustrated in his paper “Movements of Ground Water,” in Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, 20 , no. 6 (1936), is an example of Meinzer’s ability to express technical terms so clearly that they can be understood by the layman.

His report “Large Springs in the United States,” published in 1927 as U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 557, continues to serve as a model for later reports on large springs. Meinzer’s Water-Supply Paper 577, “Plants as Indicators of Ground Water,” was published in the same year. Water-Supply Paper 640, prepared under Meinzer’s direction and close supervision, is cited in the fourth edition of Suggestions to Authors of the Reports of the United States Geological Survey as a model for the preparation of ground-water reports.

“Outline of Methods for Estimating Ground-Water Supplies” was published as U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 638-C, 99– 144.

Meinzer’s “Ground-Water in the United States, a Summary of Ground-Water Conditions and Resources, Utilization of Water from Wells and Springs, Methods of Scientific Investigation, and Literature Relating to the Subject” was published in 1939 as U.S. Geological Survey Water-supply Paper 836-D, 157–232.

Meinzer was editor and coauthor with twenty-three associates of a book, Hydrology, published in the Physics of the Earth Series, vol. 9 (New York, 1942). The part of the book written by Meinzer, as with all of his reports, stands out as an example of his excellent, plain, terse, readable style of writing.

Three of his latest papers were (1) “Problems of the Perennial Yield of Artesian Aquifers,” in Economic Geology, 40 (1945), 159–163; (2) “General Principles of Artificial Ground-Water Recharge,” in Economic Geology, 41 (1946), 191–201; and (3) “Hydrology in Relation to Economic Geology,” ibid., 1–12. His last paper, Suggestions as to Future Research in Ground-Water Hydrology, serves as a guide for continuing research.

II. Secondary Literature. A biography and a complete bibliography are given by Sayre, in Proceedings Volume (1948) of the Geological Society of America, pp. 197–206, cited above. A brief biography by Sayre is published in Transactions, American Geophysical Union, 29 , no. 4 (1948), 455–456. A longer discussion of Meinzer is given by O. M. Hackett, “The Father of Modern Ground-Water Hydrology,” in Ground Water, 3 , no. 2 (April 1965). A brief biography is given in American Men of Science. Thirty-one of his U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Papers are listed in Publications of the Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1879 –1961. U.S. Geological Surrey Water-Supply Paper 992 lists his reports up to 1946, and Water-Supply Paper 1492 gives an annotated bibliography for his later reports. The following U.S. Geological Survey bulletins in Bibliography of North American Geology list most of his reports for years indicated: Bull. 746–747 for the period through 1918; Bull. 823, pts. 1 and 2 for years 1919–1928; Bull. 937, pts. 1 and 2 for years 1929–1939; and Bull. 1049, pts. 1 and 2, 1940–1949.

V. T. Stringfield

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