Hall, James, Jr.

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Hall, James, Jr.

(b. Hingham, Massachusetts, 12 September 1811; d. Bethlehem, New Hampshire, 7 August 1898)

paleontology, geology.

Hall’s father emigrated from England to Boston in 1809, at age nineteen, to avoid the army (the traditional family career). En route he met Susan Dourdain, whom he married in 1810. Their first child, James Hall, Jr., attended Hingham schools but was a frequent absentee because he worked to assist a growing family of three sisters and one brother. His father died in 1836. His mother, of whom he was very fond and who accompanied him in the field during his early work, died in 1859. There is no intimation that he took any interest in the rocks near his boyhood home.

In assisting at Martin Gay’s chemistry lectures by setting up apparatus and visual aids, Hall was brought into contact with a renowned coterie of organizers of the Boston Society of Natural History, including Amos Binney, George B. Emerson, Augustus Gould, and D. Humphreys Storer. His youthful veneration for these pioneer scientists strengthened his plans for a life of science. Fortunately, a new school with a novel approach to education had just opened at Troy, New York, under the patronage of Stephen van Rensselaer and with Amos Eaton as director. Students lectured while teachers listened; and fieldwork was an integral part of the curriculum. James Hall came into this progressive educational environment in 1830—after walking 220 miles. He sharpened his talents under the able, heterodox tutelage of Eaton and came into contact with Ebenezer Emmons, professor of mineralogy and chemistry. Hall became a bachelor of natural science with honors (1832) and master of arts with honors (1833).

In 1838 Hall married Sarah Aikin, daughter of a Troy lawyer. They had two daughters and two sons. His wife died in 1895 after many years of religious devotion and marital estrangement.

Persuaded by Eaton and prodded by DeWitt Clinton, the New York legislature in 1836 authorized Governor William Marcy to establish a geological survey in which the state was divided into four districts. Emmons, recently retired from Rensselaer, was given charge of the northern (second) district, with Hall as assistant. In 1837 young Hall was given charge of the western (fourth) district. As his assistants he chose fellow Rensselaer alumni: Eben Horsford, Ezra Carr, and George Boyd. A wealth of invertebrate fossils collected during a five-year survey of western New York afoot and on horseback touched off Hall’s sometimes fiery but brilliant career and initiated the most influential and voluminous paleontologic work created in North America—the monumental thirteenvolume Palaeontology of New York.

The termination of the Geological Survey in 1843 found Emmons and Hall vying for the privilege of describing and illustrating the collection of ancient invertebrates; Timothy Conrad, the first state paleontologist, had become fatigued with the immensity of the project and readily left New York to resume his own studies of Tertiary fossils. Possibly owing to his youth, superior competence with fossils, or political favor, James Hall was appointed state paleontologist by Governor William C. Bouck in 1843, while Emmons became state agriculturist. Curiously, within the agriculture volume there appeared a lengthy description of the Taconic system—a concept that was an anathema to Hall. Thus began a controversy which endured in modified form, although with reduced animosity, into the mid-twentieth century.

As a collector Hall was unsurpassed. He knew no duplicates; no two specimens of a species seemed precisely alike. His first collection, the basis for volumes I and II of Palaeontology of New York, was sold to the American Museum of Natural History. In lieu of sufficient salary, he retained two-thirds of his collections. The sale of these and fossils gathered by his partner-collectors financed the continuation of Palaeontology.

In 1857 Hall constructed a roomy brick building (still standing in Lincoln Park, Albany) which served as laboratory until his death. His assistants, artists, and collectors included George B. Simpson (his nephew), Fielding Meek, Robert Parr Whitfield, Richard Rathbun, Orville Derby, Carl Rominger, Ebenezer Emmons, Jr. (One of Hall’s most gifted artists), Ferdinand Hayden, Grove Gilbert, Charles Calloway, Charles E. Beecher, Charles D. Walcott, John M. Clarke, and Charles Schuchert. For a time, Hall’s two sons James and Charles Edward (Ned) also assisted in the work. Hall criticized and reviewed all these men and taught not only the science but also the art of fossil collecting.

The problem of storing collections led concerned scientists to plead for the establishment of a state museum. Hall was appointed curator in 1865 and its first director in 1871. This was the precursor of the current New York State Museum.

The geological survey of 1836–1837 had established an orderly stratigraphic framework—the New-York system, a term never used outside New York although the component division names gained worldwide recognition. Hall’s travels and correspondence with friends and contemporary scientists (including Louis Agassiz, Joachim Barrande, James D. Dana, Eduard Desor, Joseph Henry, Edward Hitchcock, William Logan, Charles Lyell, Jules Marcou, Ferdinand Roemer, Benjamin Silliman, and Eduard de Verneuil) expanded the knowledge of New York rocks and fossils and gained Hall an international reputation.

Hall was active in the establishment of the California, Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin state geological surveys—in addition to being state geologist of New York (1837–1898). In a letter (1879) to President Rutherford B. Hayes, he urged the appointment of Clarence King as first director of the U.S. Geological Survey and later recommended another director, Hall’s protégé, Walcott.

Hall received many honors and awards. He was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1856); one of fifty charter members of the National Academy of Sciences (1863); organizing president of the International Geological Congress at Buffalo (1876); vice-president of the International Geological Congresses at Paris (1878), at Bologna (1881), and at Berlin (1885); first president of the Geological Society of America (1889); and honorary president of the International Geological Congress at St. Petersburg (1897). His awards included the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society (1858); the Walker Prize of the Boston Society of Natural History (1884); and the Hayden Medal of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences (1890). In addition to numerous honorary memberships in scientific organizations, Hall was awarded many honorary degrees, including the LL.D. from Hamilton (1863), McGill (1884), and Harvard (1886).

Hall reported (1845) the first Mesozoic forms from the western United States, in collections of Col. John C. Frémont. He also initiated two basic ideas in geology. In 1857 his presidential address, “Geological History of the North American Continent” (not published until 1883 because of its bizarre ideas), outlined a concept of crustal downfolds at the edges of continents that initially filled with sediments (later termed geosynclines by J. D. Dana), then evolved into mountain chains such as the Appalachians. The principle of isostasy was summarized as compensating responses within the continent to balance these downfoldings.

Picturesque throughout his life, Hall was selfreliant yet eager for enthusiastic aid, domineering yet attentive, irascible yet kind, complimentary of other’s achievements yet parsimonious in his acknowledgment of assistance. His health was excellent. He stood erect and sported a thick, snow-white beard that grew high on his ruddy cheeks. With spectacles somewhat askew on a Moorish nose, stovepipe hat, cane, and knee-length coat buttoned at the neck, this round, pompous-looking figure was quite noticeable when he toured the Albany streets in a battered carriage drawn by an old horse.

Hall occupied his high position in paleontology primarily because he refused to be displaced. Repeatedly pestered and taunted by committees appointed not to investigate but to condemn, and maligned by scientific adversaries who were the targets of Hall’s barbs, he weathered the onslaught to emerge as America’s foremost invertebrate paleontologist. His biographer and successor as state paleontologist, John M. Clarke, said:

And thus passed from life a very great man, not honoured in his family, not well understood in his own community, not always courteously entreated and appreciated by his scientific contemporaries; but on the other hand winning the admiration and acclaim of those great-minded enough to understand his inflexible purpose and the magnitude of his achievement [James Hall of Albany, p. 548].


I. Original Works. Hall was author or coauthor of 302 scientific works, including the following: Geology of New York, pt. 4 (Albany, 1843), the survey of the fourth geological district; Fremont’s Exploring Expedition (Washington, D.C., 1845), pp. 295–310: New York State Natural History Survey: Palaeontology, 8 vols. in 13 (Albany, 1847–1894); Geological Survey of the State of Iowa, I, pt. 2, Paleontology of Iowa (Albany, 1858), 473–724; “Descriptions of New Species of Crinoidea From the Carboniferous Rocks of the Mississippi Valley,” in Journal of the Boston Society of Natural History, 7 (1861), 261–328; Geological Survey of Canada, Figures and Descriptions of Canadian Organic Remains: Graptolites of the Quebec Group (Montreal, 1865); Geological Survey of the State of Wisconsin 1859–1863: Palaeontology, pt. 3, Organic Remains of the Niagara Group and Associated Limestones (Albany, 1871); Geological Survey of Ohio, II, pt. 2, Palaeontology, Description of Silurian Fossils (Columbus, 1875), 65–161, written with R. P. Whitfield; “The Fauna of the Niagara Group in Central Indiana,” in Twenty-Eighth Annual Report. New York State Museum of Natural History (Albany, 1879), 99–203; Clarence King, ed., U.S. Geological Explorations of the Fortieth Parallel, IV, pt. 2, Palaeontology, written with R. P. Whitfield, (Washington, 1877), 199–302; “Contributions to the Geological History of the American Continent.” in Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 31 (1883), 29–71; and A Memoir on the Paleozoic Reticulate Sponges Constituting the Family Dictyospongidae, New York State Museum Memoir no. 2 (Albany, 1898).

II. Secondary Literature. On Hall or his work, see John M. Clarke, James Hall of Albany (Albany, 1921); George P. Merrill, The First One Hundred Years of American Geology (New Haven, 1924), esp. pp. 230–237; and John J. Stevenson, “Memoir of James Hall.” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 10 (1899), 425–451, with full bibliography.

Donald W. Fisher