Billings, Elkanah

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Billings, Elkanah

(b. Billings Bridge, near Bytown [now Ottawa], Ontario, 5 May 1820; d. Montreal, Quebec. 14 June 1876)


Billings’ father, Bradish, was a farmer in comfortable circumstances. After attending several private schools, Elkanah entered St. Lawrence Academy at Potsdam, New York, in 1837. Returning to Bytownin 1839, he enrolled in the Law Society of Upper Canada and was admitted to the bar in 1844. For eight years he practiced law in Torornto, Renfrew, and Bytown in 1852 he virtually gave up his law practice to become editor of the Bytown Citizen; in it he began to publish popular articles on natural history, including local fossils, of which he had a large collection. His proficiency in paleontology earned him membership in the Canadian Institute of Toronto in 1854, and his first scientific papers were read before that institute the same year and were published in its Journal.

In 1856 Billings wrote: “I have abandoned my [legal] profession, and intend to devote the rest of my life to the study of Natural History.” He there upon began publication of the Canadian Naturalist & Geologist, and for the first year (1856) was its owner, editor, and sole contributor. Although he relinquished official connection with that journal in 1857, he subsequently contributed at least forty articles to it.

Billings’ love for natural history may have been fostered by his eldest brother, who became an accomplished botanist and entomologist; as a paleontologist he was entirely self-taught. While living in Toronto he doubtless had access to scientific libraries and collections. Indeed, he could not have written his first two papers (1854) without detailed knowledge of the morphology of echinoderms, both living and fossil, of the available literature on that subject, and of the rules of taxonoimic nomenclature. From 1852 on, he corresponded with William E. Logan, director of the Geological Survey of Canada, who considered his scientific attainments of such high caliber that in 1856 he obtained for Billings the post of paleontologist with the Survey. This necessitated his moving to the Survey headquarters in Montreal, where a large collection of fossils, some identified and some not, had accumulated in its museum. Billings plunged at once into the task of identifying and classifying these fossils so that they could form a meaningful public display and could provide a standard against which new collections could be compared. Within two years this task was accomplished.

Except for two scientific papers (1854) concerned With technical descriptions of cystids from the Trenton limestone, Billings’ writings prior to the Survey appointment were essays on natural history. After becoming an officer of the Survey, he turned his attention strictly to the exacting scientific descriptions of fossils, mostly from Paleozoic formations of eastern Canada. His first official “Report… as Palaeontologist” (1857) contains detailed descriptions of 106 new species belonging to thirty-five genera (of which thirteen were new), a remarkable achievement. His second report (1858) was similarly constituted, and was immediately followed by Decades 3 (1858) and 4 (1859) of the Canadian Organic Remains series, which were concerned almost wholly with fossil echinoderms. Billings began a second series of paleontological works. Palaeozoic Fossils, of which he wrote the first volume (1865) and the first part of the second (1874). Among other publications are his 1866 report on fossils from Anticosti Island and his continuing work on Devonian fossils from western Canada and on Silurian (ie., Ordovician and Silurian) crinoids and cystids. The last category embraced what might be called his specialty. In all he published descriptions of sixty-one new genera and 1,065 new species of fossils. His bibliography contains nearly 200 titles, of which ninety are concerned directly or indirectly with paleontological subjects.

Although he accomplished much in purely descriptive taxonomic paleontology, Billings is also remembered for the stratigraphic interpretation of his identifications. Because of his determination of the age of the rocks of the “Quebec Group” as Beekmantown and Chazy, Logan was able to demonstrate his “great overlap,” which is now referred to as Logan’s line.


1. Original Works. Billings’ writings include “Report for the Year 1856 as Palaeontologist,” in Geological Survey of Canada, Report of Progress for 1853–56 (Montreal, 1857), pp. 247–345; “Report for the Year 1857 as Palaeontologist,” in Geological Survey of Canada, Report of Progress for 1857 (Montreal, 1858), pp. 147–192; Figures and Descriptions, Canadian Organic Remains, Decade 3 (Montreal, 1858) and Decade 4 (Montreal, 1859); Palaeozoic Fossils, Vol. I (Montreal, 1865).and Vol. II, pt. I (Montreal, 1874); and “Catalogue of the Fossils of the Island of Anticosti,” in Special Report of the Geological Survey of Canada (Montreal, 1866), pp. 1–82.

II. Secondary Literature. Articles on Billings are H. M. Ami, “Brief Biographical Sketch of Eikanah Billings.” in American Geologist (May 1901), 265–28.1; B. E. Walker, “List of the Published Writings of Elkanah Billings, F. G.S,.” in Canadian Record of Science, 8 (1902), 366–388; and J. F. Whiteaves, “Obituary Notice of Elkanah Billings, F. G. S.,” in Canadian Naturalist, 8 (1816), 251–261.

T. H. Clark