Chamberlin, Thomas Chrowder

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Chamberlin, Thomas Chrowder

(b. Mattoon, Illinois, 25 September 1843; d. Chicago, Illinois, 15 November 1928),

geology, cosmology.

Chamberlin’s father, John Chamberlin, left North Carolina because of his strong feelings against slavery and went west. In Illinois he married Cecilia Gill, from Kentucky. They soon settled on a farm near Mattoon and there, on the crest of the Shelbyville terminal moraine, “T. C.” was born. When he was about three years old, the family moved to a farm overlooking the rolling prairie near Beloit, Wisconsin.

In his later years Chamberlin sometimes referred to the geological setting of his birthplace as prophetic of his career. The selection of that career seems, however, to have been influenced by the presence of a limestone quarry near his boyhood home and the intellectual atmosphere in that home. Helping his older brothers quarry stone for a new farmhouse, young Chamberlin was intrigued by the fossils they found. Many were the discussions as to how the “snails” and “snakes” could have gotten inside the rock. The father was by this time a Methodist circuit rider who earned his living on the farm but devoted his Sundays to preaching. Although without much academic education, he was an avid reader and an incisive thinker, strict in his views and vigorous in any argument. He also insisted that his sons think for themselves.

On graduating from Beloit College with an A.B. degree in 1866, Chamberlin spent the next two years as principal of the Delavan, Wisconsin, high school, where he introduced elementary geology and astronomy into the curriculum. In 1867 he married Alma Isabel Wilson of Beloit; they had one son, Rollin Thomas, also a geologist and teacher.

Dissatisfied with his intellectual equipment for teaching the natural sciences and foreseeing the coming wave of scientific development, Chamberlin spent the academic year 1868–1869 in graduate study at the University of Michigan, where he worked in geology under Alexander Winchell. Returning to Wisconsin, Chamberlin was professor of natural science at the state normal school at Whitewater from 1869 to 1873.

In 1873 the Wisconsin Geological Survey was established by the state legislature, and Chamberlin was appointed assistant geologist in charge of the south-east section of the state. That region of nearly flat, early Paleozoic sedimentary rocks is covered deeply by glacial drift; thus Chamberlin was practically forced to become a student of glaciation, an enterprise that eventually led him into the fundamental problems of geology and cosmology. From 1876 to the completion of the survey in 1882, he was its chief geologist. The four volumes of the survey’s report, Geology of Wisconsin (1877–1883), are models of pioneer geological research in which the chief geologist’s contributions deal especially with the glacial deposits, the lead and zinc ores, and the Silurian coral reefs. (Chamberlin apparently was the first geologist to identify certain structures in the Silurian limestones of Wisconsin as ancient coral reefs.) In the midst of these labors he served also as part-time professor of geology at Beloit College from 1873 to 1882 and delivered lectures on the relations between science and religion to audiences that filled the Second Congregational Church of Beloit.

Even before the completion of Chamberlin’s work with the Wisconsin Geological Survey he was appointed, on 17 June 1881, to the United States Geological Survey as geologist in charge of its newly organized glacial division, a post that he held until 1904. The series of notable memoirs by Chamberlin and his associates that appeared in the Report of the United States Geological Survey between 1882 and 1888 are among the classics of geological literature, Chamberlin became president of the University of Wisconsin in 1887; in the next five years he transformed that institution from a college into a true university, both in organization and in spirit. Nevertheless, in 1891, when William Rainey Harper offered him the chairmanship of the department of geology to be organized at the new University of Chicago, he accepted. From 1892 to 1918 Chamberlin devoted his energy unstintingly to that institution of higher learning. There he established the Journal of Geology, and under his supervision there developed one of the most distinguished geology departments in any university, American or foreign.

In June 1918, shortly before his seventy-fifth birthday, Chamberlin retired from his university duties, continuing only his service as senior editor of the Journal of Geology, But retirement meant merely greater freedom for continuing his research, and the last ten years of his life were among the most fruitful. One of the finest of all his publications was The Two Solar Families, which came from the press on his eighty-fifth birthday, only a few weeks before his death.

Chamberlin was tall and broad-shouldered, a rugged and vigorous figure throughout most of his life. His characteristically serious mien, softened by a kindly and serene expression, gave him an appearance of great dignity, enhanced in his later years by snowwhite hair and full beard. He was not without physical afflictions, however. In 1909 he and his son were the scientists in a four-man team commissioned by John D. Rockefeller to reconnoiter the vast and little-known Chinese empire as a potential site for the humanitarian projects of the nascent Rockefeller Foundation. His health broken by months of arduous travel and poor food, the first symptoms of serious stomach trouble appeared while the Chamberlins were en route from Mukden (now Shen-yang) to Moscow. His condition worsened, and at several times during the next three or four years it caused alarm. Fortunately, skillful treatment prevailed, and a rigid regimen of diet and exercise, worked out largely by Chamberlin himself, slowly restored his health, except for his steadily failing eyesight, during the last fifteen years of his life.

Chamberlin was active in many scientific organizations and was the recipient of many honors. He was president of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters in 1885–1886, of the Geological Society of America in 1895, of the Chicago Academy of Sciences from 1897 to 1915, of the Illinois Academy of Sciences in 1907, and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1908–1909, He was a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, as well as a corresponding member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and of the geological societies of Edinburgh, London, Sweden, and Belgium. Honorary doctoral degrees were conferred on him by the University of Michigan, Beloit College, Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Toronto, and the University of Illinois. He received the medal for geological publications at the Paris expositions in 1878 and 1893, the Culver Medal of the Geographical Society of Chicago in 1910, the Hayden Medal of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences in 1920, the Penrose Medal of the Society of Economic Geologists in 1924, and the Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America in 1927.

The titles in the selected bibliography of Chamberlin’s published works indicate something of his breadth of interest and the scope of his mind. He was one of the first glaciologists to see that the Ice Age was a lime of multiple glaciation. This led him to focus attention upon the causes of glacial climates and the problem of the changing climates of the geological past. He stressed the importance of variations in the composition of the earth’s atmosphere, with special reference to its CO2 content. His 1897 paper on this subject is still a stimulus for all concerned with this problem, which has not yet been fully resolved. Most significantly, this consideration of the condition of the atmosphere early in the earth’s history forced Chamberlin to doubt the validity of the then generally approved Laplacian hypothesis concerning the origin and early history of the earth. It was one of the first steps along the path that brought him to the heights in cosmology and fundamental geological philosophy.

About this time an incident occurred that indicated Chamberlin’s extraordinary prophetic vision. In a famous address delivered in 1897, Lord Kelvin announced that the sun could not have supplied heat sufficient for life on the earth for more than 20,000,000–30,000,000 years and chided geologists for their extravagant postulates concerning lime. Replying in 1899, Chamberlin criticized the “unqualified assumptions” on which Kelvin had based his calculations and went on to say that the internal constitution of the atoms was still an open question and that it was not improbable that they were complex organizations possessed of enormous energies.

To test critically the Laplacian hypothesis and to develop meticulously the planetesimal hypothesis as its replacement, Chamberlin needed the assistance of someone who could supplement his own naturalistic approach by bringing mathematical methods of analysis to bear upon the problems. This he found in his colleague at the University of Chicago, F. R. Moulton, whose mastery of celestial mechanics and profound mathematical insight enabled him to contribute brilliantly to the success of their joint enterprise. By 1900 they had completely abandoned the Laplacian hypothesis, and by 1905 they had molded the planetesimal hypothesis into the form in which it appeared in Yearbook of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (no. 3). The concept of planetary growth by accretion of planetoidal particles and bodies (planetesimals) seems to be standing the test of time.

This latter concept has far-reaching implications in geological theory, and Chamberlin proceeded to follow them to their logical conclusions in two series of publications: one, with the general title Diustrophism and the Formative Process, encompassed fifteen papers that appeared in the Journal of Geology between 1913 and 1920; the other, under the rubric Study of Fundamental Problems of Geology, was published in the Yearbooks of the Carnegie Institution of Washington between 1904 and 1928. Throughout these and other contributions to geological lore he consistently used the “method of multiple working hypotheses,” setting an example in scientific methodology that has been followed ever since by researchers in all scientific disciplines.


I. Original Works. Among Chamberlin’s writings are “Preliminary Paper on the Terminal Moraine of the Second Glacial Epoch,” in Report of the United Slates Geological Survey (1882). 291–402; “The Requisite and Qualifying Conditions of Artesian Wells,” in Report of the United States Geological Surrey (1884). 125–173; “Preliminary Paper on the Driftless Area of the Upper Mississippi Valley,” in Report of the United States Geological Survey (1885), pp. 205–322, written with R. D. Salisbury; “Glacial Phenomena of North America,” in James Geikie, The Great Ice Age, 3rd ed. (New York. 1895), pp. 724–774; “A Group of Hypotheses Bearing on Climatic Changes.” in Journal of Geology. 5 (1897). 653–683; “The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses,” ibid., 837–848, repr. ibid., 39 (1931), 155–165; “On Lord Kelvin’s Address on the Age of the Earth as an Abode Fitted for Life,” in Science. 9 (1899), 889–901, and 10 (1899), 11–18, repr. in Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for 1899 (1900) pp. 223–246; “On the Habitat of the Early Vertebrates,” in Journal of Geology, 8 (1900). 400–412; Geology. 3 vols. (New York, 1904–1906), written with R. D. Salisbury; “Fundamental Problems of Geology,” in Yearbook of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, no. 3 (Washington, D.C., 1905), pp. 195–238; “Early Terrestrial Conditions That May Have Favored Organic Synthesis,” in Science, 28 (1908). 897–911, written with R. T. Chamberlin; College Geology (New York, 1909), written with R. D. Salisbury; “Diastrophism as the Ultimate Basis of Correlation,” in Journal of Geology, 17 (1909), 685–690; “The Development of the Planetesimal Hypothesis.” in Science, 30 (1909), 643–645, written with F. R. Moulton; “The Future Habitability of the Earthm,” in Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for 1910 (1911), pp. 371– 389;The Origin of the Earth (Chicago, 1916); “Certain Phases of Megatectonic Geology,” in Journal of Geology, 34 (1926), 1–28; and The Two Solar Families: The Sun’s Children (Chicago, 1928).

II. Secondary Literature. Biographies of Chamberlin include Rollin T. Chamberlin, in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 15 (1934), 307–407, with a bibliography of 251 titles; Kirlley F. Mather, in Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 70 (1936), 505–508; and Bailey Willis, in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 40 (1929), 23–44.

Kirtley F. Mather

Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin

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Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin

Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin (1843-1928), the leading American geologist of his time, was known primarily as a glacialist and as an outstanding contributor to theoretical geology, particularly for his "planetesimal" theory of the origin of the planets.

Thomas Chamberlin was born on Sept. 25, 1843, in Mattoon, III., the son of a Methodist minister. In 1866 Chamberlin received a bachelor of arts degree from Beloit College and the next year married Alma Wilson. After a year of graduate study at the University of Wisconsin he became professor of natural sciences at the State Normal School, Whitewater, Wis. (1870-1873).

Chamberlin then went to Beloit College as professor of geology and began his career as a student of earth history. The glacial deposits around Beloit revealed dramatically that the climatic conditions in past ages differed sharply from current conditions. Chamberlin followed this obvious fact into a consideration of earth climates through the known range of geological time and finally into problems of cosmic physics.

While at Beloit, Chamberlin also served as an assistant on the Wisconsin State Survey (1873-1876) and as its chief (1877-1882). The results of the comprehensive survey, published in four volumes, attracted so much favorable attention that a Division of Glacial Geology was established in the U.S. Geological Survey, with Chamberlin as head (1882-1887). For the next 5 years he was president of the University of Chicago as head of the department of geology and director of the Waller Museum, becoming professor emeritus in 1919. In 1893 he founded the Journal of Geology and was editor in chief until 1922. He died on Nov. 15, 1928.

His "Planetesimal" Theory

In the late 1890s Chamberlin began the series of papers which led to his "planetesimal" hypothesis. This was stated in its final form in The Origin of the Earth (1916). He drew upon a wide range of investigations in mathematics and astronomy and brought practically the whole field of cosmic physics to bear upon the problem. His theory grew out of efforts to test the long-standing nebular hypothesis. Chamberlin proposed that a star crossing close to the path of the sun caused a partial disruption of the sun. Materials were expelled and formed into great and small masses. Swarms of the minute particles solidified into what Chamberlin called "planetesimals." These in turn were drawn into the larger masses, which, moving in elliptical orbits, formed the planets of the solar system.

Further Reading

The only full-length study of Chamberlin is George L. Collie and Hiram D. Densmore, Thomas C. Chamberlin and Rollin D. Salisbury: A Beloit College Partnership (1932). For Chamberlin's life and work see Carroll Lane Fenton and Mildred Adams Fenton, Giants of Geology (1952; 1945 ed. entitled The Story of the Great Geologists). A summary of Chamberlin's survey of Wisconsin in 1876 is included in George P. Merrill, The First Hundred Years of American Geology (1924). □

Chamberlin, Thomas Chrowder

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Chamberlin, Thomas Chrowder (1843–1928) Professor of geology at Chicago University and Head of the Glacial Division of the US Geological Survey, in which capacity he mapped the ice deposits of Wisconsin, Chamberlin developed a theory of successive episodes of mountain building, around an ancient continental craton. With Moulton, he proposed the planetismal hypothesis of the formation of the Earth.

Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin

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Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin


U.S. geologist recognized for advancing geological education and shaping the planetesimal hypothesis. This hypothesis states that a star passing near the sun broke into pieces that condensed and clumped together to become planets. Chamberlin became chief of the Wisconsin Geological Survey in 1881 and later became the president of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Then, for 26 years, he was head of the University of Chicago geology department, developing it into a world leader in the field of geology. However, his most famous contribution came after retirement with the development of the planetesimal hypothesis.

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