Hitchcock, Edward

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Hitchcock, Edward

(b. Deerfield, Massachusetts, 24 May 1793; d. Amherst, Massachusetts, 27 February 1864)


Hitchcock wrote extensively on the relation of science to religion, on the geomorphology of the Connecticut River Valley, on fossil tracks of extinct vertebrates, and on the metamorphosis of sediments.

The son of Justin Hitchcock and Mercy Hoyt, Hitchcock was born into a pious, respected, but poor family. Because of his father’s meager income from the hatter’s trade, Edward worked his way through Deerfield Academy, where his observations on the comet of 1811 marked the beginning of a lifelong career in science. While Hitchcock was preceptor of the academy (1815–1819), his eyes weakened, ending his brief career in astronomy. An encounter with Amos Eaton at Amherst, sometime during Hitchcock’s Deerfield tenure, and an exchange of letters and minerals with Benjamin Silliman of Yale in 1817, turned his interest to natural history. Yale awarded him an honorary master of arts in 1818, Harvard an honorary doctor of laws in 1840, and Middlebury College an honorary doctor of divinity in 1846. Following a short-lived conversion to Unitarianism as a youth, he settled into his family’s faith, Congregationalism. He studied theology at Yale in 1820(?) and acted as pastor in Conway, Massachusetts, from June 1821 to October 1825.

He was professor of chemistry and natural history at Amherst College from 1825 to 1845, having prepared himself for science-teaching by auditing Silliman’s courses at yale (October 1825–January 1826). In 1840 he co-founded, with other state geologists, the American Association of Geologists, parent of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 1863 he became a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences. Hitchcock was president of Amherst College from December 1844 to November 1854 and also taught natural theology and geology there from 1845 until his death. His marriage on 13 June 1821 to Orra White resulted in six children, two of whom, Charles Henry and Edward, Jr., chose scientific careers; Charles became state geologist for Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire. Mrs. Hitchcock illustrated her husband’s works and assisted him in scientific enterprises. Despite a careful diet and zealous devotion to temperance, Hitchcock suffered from chronic intestinal and gall bladder complaints so debilitating as to hamper his geological fieldwork.

Hitchcock’s scientific textbooks and popular works stemmed largely from his teaching at Amherst, while his technical geological monographs grew mostly from his appointments as state geologist of Massachusetts (1830–1833, 1837–1841) and of Vermont (1856–1861). Hitchcock was appointed in 1836 to the New York State Survey and although he resigned after only a month, his influence was evident in the survey’s outcome. John Dix, who organized the survey, adopted the zoological and botanical features that characterized Hitchcock’s earlier geological survey of Massachusetts, on which Hitchcock wrote a final report, Geology of Massachusetts (1833), the first of its kind. Dix’s report, patterned after Hitchcock’s, was expanded by the scientists of the New York survey into a twelve-volume work that marked a major development in geological science.

Hitchcock saw his task in Wernerian terms, using German rocks from Heidelberg in a collection at Amherst to identify the New England stratigraphic equivalents by comparing lithologies. As early as 1824 he had provided an appendix to Eaton’s A Geological and Agricultural Survey of the District Adjoining the Erie Canal, in which he offered a different geological interpretation of the section across Massachusetts from the New York line to Boston.

Although he personally admired Charles Lyell, Hitchcock predicated his geological explanations upon the changing intensity over time of agents such as glaciation and flooding, rather than upon constant, gradual operation of such forces. He did not accept those explanations, however, which were based upon causative forces no longer in operation in the modern world. Hitchcock has therefore been proclaimed both a catastrophist and a uniformitarian. He gradually introduced a partial glacial hypothesis into his geomorphological studies, becoming a cautious admirer of Louis Agassiz after a trip to European glacial sites in 1850 convinced him of the erosional power of ice. But his important study of terraces in the Connecticut River Valley, which culminated in his Illustrations of Surface Geology (1857), demonstrated his reluctance to abandon entirely fluviate geology for glacial theories. In contrast to his conservatism on glacial issues, Hitchcock was an early American advocate of the thesis that heat and pressure gradually changed sediments into schist and thence possibly to granite, a theory which he felt most adequately explained his observations on metamorphosed New England conglomerates.

Hitchcock’s work in paleontology focused almost exclusively on the huge footprints left by vertebrates in the Triassic sandstone of the Connecticut River Valley; he argued that these tracks, which have since been attributed to dinosaurs, were made by ancient birds. In all of his writings, particularly in Religion of Geology (Boston, 1851) and his sermons, Hitchcock supported a unified truth rather than a theology separate from science. In his teaching, writing, and preaching, he conceived a transcendental vision of a beneficent God more comprehensible form a fusion of theological and natural studies than from their division into separate compartments of knowledge.


I. Original Works. Charles Henry Hitchcock lists Hitchcock’s published work, including his play, newspaper articles, sermons, popular treatises, technical articles and books, and textbookls in “Edward Hitchcock,” in American Geologist,16 (1895), 139–149; esp. valuable are the American Journal of Science articles listed there. See also Report on the Geology of Massachusetts (Amherst, 1833); Final Report on the Geology of Massachusetts, 2 vols. (Amherst-Northampton, 1841); Illustrations of Surface Geology, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, vol IX (Washington, D.C., 1857); Ichnology of New England, 2 vols. (Boston, 1858); supp on fossil footprints (Boston, 1865); and A Report on the Geology of Vermont 2 vols. (Clare mont, 1861).

Hitchcock’s best-selling textbook, Elementary Geology, ran through several eds, and over thirty printings from 1840 until his death, and is thus a valuable index to his changes of thought on geological issues.

II. Secondary Literature. Hitchcock lacks an adequate biography, and therefore researchers must piece together his life from a patchwork of sources. Use of the Edward Hitchcock Papers, Special Collections Room, Robert Frost Library, Amherst College, is imperative for an accurate and complete assessment. In addition to the published biographies listed in Max Meisel, A Bibliography of American Natural History, the Pioneer Century, 1769–1865 (Brooklyn, N.y., 1924–1929), I, 195, and George Merrill, “Edward Hitchcock,” in Dictionary of American Biography, see Bnjamin Silliman’s manuscript “Reminiscences, 1792–1862,” V, Beinecke Library, Yale University; George Sheldon, A History of Deerfield, Massachusetts (Deerfield, 1895–1896), pp. 848–849; and Edwin H. Colbert, Men and Dinosaurs, the Search in Field and Laboratory (New York, 1968), pp. 37–41.

Until a similar work is written on American geologists, Charles Coulston Gillispie provides the best intellectual context for evaluating Hitchcock in Genesis and Geology, a Study in the Relations of Scientific Thought, Natural Theology, and Social Opinion in Great Britain, 1790–1850 (Cambridge, 1951; repr. New York, 1959).

Michele L. Aldrich