Shaler, Nathaniel Southgate

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(b. Newport, Kentucky, 20 February 1841: d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 10 April 1906)


Shaler was the son of Nathaniel Burger Shaler, a physician, and Anne Hinde Southgate, daughter of a prosperous lawyer. He entered Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University; studied under Louis Agassiz, although he came to reject Agassiz’s anti-Darwinism, and earned the S. B. summa cum laude in 1862. His Civil War service in Kentucky curtailed by illness, Shaler returned to Harvard in 1864 as a university lecturer and remained there until his death, at which time he had become professor of geology and dean of the Lawrence Scientific School. Shaler worked intermittently for the U. S. Coast Survey and was director of the Kentucky Geological Survey (1873–1880), undertaking the first systematic survey of that state. In 1880 he joined the U.S. Geological Survey on a part-time basis and was head of its Atlantic Coast division from 1884 to 1900.

Shaler made a notable contribution to reclamation geology. His reports on inundated lands of the eastern United States and their reclamation value appeared within a decade after John Wesley Powell’s Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878). Shaler said that an interesting reclamation alternative to irrigation of arid western lands would be the drainage of swamps and marshes. His concern with inundated lands reflected his broader interest in relating geology to the effects of man’s activity upon the earth’s surface. Shaler’s Aspects of the Earth (1889), similar in mood to George Perkins Marsh’s Nature and Man (1864), was intended to show the necessity for human understanding of the environment. This theme was later applied in his Nature and Man in America (1891), an important work on the environmental interpretation of history.

Shaler attained recognition through his popularization of geology, the sheer volume of his writing, and his national prominence within the profession (he was elected president of the Geological Society of America in 1895). Optimistic, enthusiastic, and sometimes prone to exaggeration, he contributed to the dissemination of geological knowledge and linked geology to human progress.


I. Original Works. The following scientific writings provide some indication of the range of Shaler’s geological interests: “On the Formation of Mountain Chain,” in Geological Magazine, 5 (1868), 511–517; “Sea Coast Swamps of the Eastern United States,” in United States Geological Survey, Sixth Annual Report (Washington, D.C., 1886), 359–398; “The Geology of the Island of Mount Desert, Maine,” ibid., Eighth Annual Report (Washington, D.C., 1889), 987–1061; “General Account of the Fresh-Water Morasses of the United States. With a Description of the Dismal Swamp District of Virginia and North Carolina.” ibid., Tenth Annual Report (Washington, D.C., 1890). 255–339; “The Origin and Nature of Soils,” ibid., Twelth Annual Report (Washington, D.C., 1892), 213–345; “Preliminary Report on the Geology of the Common Roads of the United States.” ibid., Fifteenth Annual Report (Washington, D.C., 1895), 255–306.

Representative of Shaler’s effect to popularize geological knowledge are Illustrations of the Earth’s Surface: Glaciers (Boston, 1881); The First Book of Geology (Boston, 1884): Aspects of the Earth (New York, 1889); Sea and Land: Features of Coasts and Oceasns (New York, 1892); and Outlines of the Earth’s History (New York, 1898). The last work was castigated by the geologist Israel C. Russell, who termed it a “nature-novel” in his review in Science, n.s. 8 (1898), 712–715.

Shaler’s application of geology and geography to history is revealed in Kentucky: A Pioneer Commonwealth (Boston, 1884) and in Nature and Man in America (New York, 1891).

Shaler’s memoirs were published as The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler With a Supplementary Memoir by His Wife (Boston, 1909).

II. Secondary Literature. Brief assessments of Shaler are “Professors N. S. Shaler and I. C. Russell,” in Nature, 74 (1906), 226–227; and “Nathaniel Southgate Shaler,” in Science, n.s. 23 (1906), 869–872. A lengthy account is Walter L. Berg, “Nathaniel Southgate Shaler: A Critical Study of an Earth Scientist,” unpub. diss., University Microfilms (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1957). A full bibliography of Shaler’s writings is in John E. Wolff, “Memoir of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 18 (1908), 592–608.

Walter L. Berg

Shaler, Nathaniel Southgate (1841-1906)

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Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841-1906)

Geologist, geographer


Background. A native of Kentucky, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler was a student of Louis Agassiz at the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University. After graduating in 1862, Shaler served in Kentucky during the Civil Warand returned to Harvard in 1864 as a professor of geology. He later became dean of the Lawrence Scientific School. He also directed the Kentucky Geological Survey from 1873 to 1880, when he joined the U.S. Geological Survey as a part-time geologist, heading its Atlantic Coast Division from 1884 to 1900. One of Shalers contributions was the correct assertion that the Earth had a fluid substratum beneath its solid surface. Therefore, he said, the topography of the surface is produced in two ways: by a contraction of the Earths nucleus (producing the continental folds) and a contraction of the outer shell only (producing mountain ranges).

Accepting Evolution. One of the first American geologists to confront and accept Darwins theory of evolution by natural selection, Shaler made evolution a basic organizing concept in all of his mature work. In an article on the rattlesnake and natural selection (1893) he stated that organisms adapt themselves in an immediate manner to the peculiarities of their environment. In this way an accumulation of influences is passed on to each creatures offspring, leading organisms ever upward to higher planes of existence. The upward thrust of evolution was a common theme among those students of Agassiz who became evolutionists. All of them also believed the now generally unaccepted neo-Lamarckian theory that animals have an inner drive to adapt to environmental changes. In this way, Shaler wrote, organisms are educated to their environment.

Reconciling Evolution and Religion. Shaler took pains to reconcile evolution with revelation by stressing that design was still the basis of human cosmology. He believed that a sense of purpose in nature was logical because the perception of such had always been present in human history: Natures design could be perceived in the finely adjusted habitats of organic beings; ecological niches were not haphazardly adopted. Shaler also believed that religion had evolved, coming close to the progressive orthodoxy of the theologians associated with the Andover Review. His student William Morris Davis, one of the founders of American academic geography, basically translated religious ideals into the language of secular science.

Geography. As a human geographer Shaler believed that there were strong geographic and environmental controls over the development of human culture. Thus in his study of Kentucky he explained that there had taken place a geological distribution of politics, in that areas with rich soils had been proslavery, while those with poor ones had opposed slavery. Shaler was also a pioneer in American soil science, stressing the function of soil as the realm of mediation between the inorganic and the organic kingdom, and he trained Curtis Marbut, the first professional soil scientist in the United States.


David N. Livingstone, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and the Culture of American Science (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987);

John E. Wolff,Memoir of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 18 (1908): 592-608.