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Chaney, Ralph Works


(b. Brainerd. Illinois. 24 August 1890; d. Berkeley, California, 3 March 1971)

paleobotany, paleoecology, conservation.

Chaney was the son of Fred A, Chaney and Laura J. Works Chaney. He received the B.S, in geology in 1912 and the Ph.D. in geology in 1919, both from the University of Chicago, On 1 June 1917 he married Marguerite Seeley; they had two sons and a daughter. Chaney was president of the Paleontological Society of America in 1939; he also was a fellow of the Geological Society of America and served as its vice president in 1940. He received an honorary D.Sc. from the University of Oregon in 1944. In 1947 Chaney was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and to the American Philosophical Society. He was a member of the Paleontological Society of Japan and the Botanical Society of Japan. In 1969 he was an honorary vice president of the Eleventh International Botanical Congress, which awarded him a Congress Medal. In 1970 he received the fifth Paleontological Society Medal from the Paleontological Society of America.

Partly to finance his field trips while he was a graduate student (1914–1917), Chaney taught science courses at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago. From 1917 to 1922 he taught geology at the University of Iowa. In 1918 Chaney met John C. Merriam, to whom he had sent a draft of his dissertation on the Miocene Eagle Creek flora of the Columbia River gorge. Merriam was impressed by the paleoecological extensions Chaney made in his study, and in 1920 invited him to join his team at the University of California, Berkeley, to investigate the rich fossilbearing Tertiary John Day beds of Oregon.

In 1922, through the influence of Merriam, who was then president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Chaney was appointed research associate; he maintained his affiliation with that institution until he retired in 1957. In 1931 Chaney became professor of paleobotany and chairman of the paleontology department at the University of California at Berkeley. He was also curator of paleobotany at the Museum of Paleontology. From 1943 to 1945 Chaney served as assistant director of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory.

The eminent Johns Hopkins paleobotanist Edward W. Berry, whom Chaney had met in 1916, wrote in the 1918 Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution that paleobotany was not merely the history of “the endless succession of plants which have inhabited the earth since life first came into existence, but it aims to understand and interpret these in terms of the evolution of individuals and of floras, their interactions with an ever-changing environment and the transmutation of these facts into terms of ancient geography, topography, rainfall, temperature. and distribution” (p. 289–290). In the same philosophical vein, Chaney s approach to the study of fossil plants was a holistic one: he was not concerned merely with taxonomy and the ages of fossils but with whole assemblages in relation to their environment. The strength of his contributions, therefore, lay in paleoecology rather than in systematics. In following this course of research. Chaney was influenced by the ecologist Frederic E. Clements.

In 1917 Merriam, with Henry Fairfield Osborn and Madison Grant, founded the Save-the-Redwoods League. Chaney became associated with the League in the late 1920, and from 1961 to 1971 he served as its president. Besides his conservation efforts for the redwoods — the League preserved tens of thousands of acres as parks—Chaney was involved with the National Park Service, serving on its Advisory Board from 1943 to 1954.

Chaney published more than 150 papers, writing well into his seventies. He has been lauded by his students and colleagues as a wise and understanding teacher with a sense of humor. In the gardens of his home in the Berkeley Hills he planted, by epochs, assemblages of many of the Tertiary floras that had survived only in Asia, thus providing his students with live representations of Tertiary vegetation. In his research Chaney emphasized the recognition of similarities rather than differences between fossil plant species and between fossil plants and living species. His comparison (1925) of the Tertiary Birdge Creek flora of the John Day basin with the modern redwood forest of California enabled him to interpret living conditions of the Birdge Creek in terms of the modern forest. He also showed (1925) that the Mascall assemblage so closely resembled the modern oak-madrona forest of the west that he felt the rainfall of the Mascall epoch must have been essentially the same, thirty inches annually.

Chaney traveled extensively in search of similar assemblages, both fossil and living, He was a member of the Roy Chapman Andrews dinosaur-collecting expedition to Mongolia in 1925. In 1937 Chaney worked with H. H. Hu on the Shangwang flora of Shantung Province in northeastern China. In 1948 he visited western Hupeh Province to see a living stand of Metasequoia, a species of deciduous conifer that had been believed extinct. The discovery of the living Mestasequoia led him to undertake a revision of several members of the Taxo-diaceae. In the 1960’s, under a project funded by the National Science Foundation, Chaney coordinated paleobotanical studies of the Tertiary floras of Japan.

His environmental approach to the study of Tertiary flora, involving the search for similarities, required the collection of vast quantities of specimens so that statistical studies could be made; the studies yielded such information as species dominance. Chaney also hypothesized on the transport and deposition of fossil plants by examining the transport of plant parts in modern streams of California. Harvard botanists Irving W. Bailey and Edmund W. Sinnott introduced (1915) the idea of studying fossil floras on the basis of the morphological character of leaves; this offered a basis for gauging past environments independent of phylogenetic considerations. Chaney extended and applied the method to the study of the early Tertiary Goshen flora of west-central Oregon. His 1933 monograph, written with Ethell. Sanborn, showed that the Goshen flora indicated an environment typical of low-latitude subtropical forests such as those in Mexico and Central America today.

In 1936 Chaney introduced the idea that plant distribution can be used as a guide to age determination, since changes in it are caused by changes in climatic and other environmental conditions through time. Like most geologists working in North America in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Chaney denied the possibility of continental drift, although he established a very close tie between the modern vegetation of eastern Asia and the fossil vegetation of modern North America.

Chaney coined the term “geoflora” for groups of land plants in mass migration. His Arcto-Tertiary geoflora, for example, shifted its distribution from Alaska southward. The Neotropical-Tertiary geoflora then moved from Washington and Oregon into Mexico and Central America. His concepts of geofloras, plant migrations, and paleoclimates were original and highly attractive because they were presented in global terms, but they have been criticized as simplistic.

Later developments in angiosperm paleobotany have shown that mosaic evolution takes place, that various organs of a species of plant do not evolve together at the same rate, so that a fossil leaf may be similar to a modern species but other organs of the plant may be quite different, making some of Chaney’s assignment of systematic affinities erroneous and thereby invalidating some of his conclusions.

Chaney’s ecological approach influenced a school of thought, and he was widely recognized as the most distinguished Tertiary paleobotanist. The focus of paleobotany today, with the aid of new techniques not available to Chaney, centers more on the details of plant anatomy than on the broad concepts of Chaney. Equipped with more complete knowledge of individual plants, however, paleobotanists could well return to Chaney’s imaginative approach in forming paleoecological syntheses.


I. Original Works. Chaney’s professional correspondence and manuscripts (1917–1966) are in the Special Collections of the University of Oregon Library, Eugene. His papers are listed in the bibliographies of Jane Gray, “Ralph Works Chaney,” in Biographical Memoris. National Academy of Sciences, 55 (1985), 135–161; and Jane Gray and Daniel I. Axelrod, “Memorial to Ralph Works Chaney 1890–1971,” in Memorials of the Geological Society of America, 3 (1974), 60–68. Writings not listed in these articles are Redwoods of the Past (Berkeley, Calif., 2nd ed., 1937) and “Paleobotany,” in McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, IX (New York, 1982), 752–760.

II. Secondary Literature. Besides the memorial articles mentioned above, see Daniel I. Axelrod, Ralph Works Chaney (1890–1971). “in Year Book of the American Philosophical Society for 1971 (1972), 115–120; and “Ralph Works Chaney,” in McGraw-Hill Modern Scientists and Engineers, I (New York, 1980), 194–195. Personal communications from the following individuals were of great value in assessing Chaney’s contributions: Harlan P. Banks, Theodore Delevoryas, David L. Dilcher and Jack A. Wolfe.

Ellen T. Drake

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