Johannsen, Albert

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Johannsen, Albert

(b. Belle Plaine, Ioowa, 3 December 1871; d. Winter Park, Florida, 11 January 1962)

petrology, petrography.

Johannsen was educated at the universities of Illinois (B.S., 1894), Utah (B.A., 1898), and Johns Hopkings (Ph.D., 1903). He worked for the Maryland Geological Survey (1901-1903) and for the U.S. Geological Survey (1903-1925) during which time he served as acting chief oof the petrology section (1907-1910).

In 1910 Johannsen went to the University of Chicago where he rose in eight years to the rank of full professor. Principally a petrographer, his early contributions were mainly improvements of the polarizing microscope and methods of optical analysis of minerals (1918). About this time Johannsen began work on a quantitative mineralogical classification of the igneous rocks primarily because of “errors introduced by loose usage of [petrologic] term “(“Suggestions for a . . .”Classification of lgneous Rocks” [1917]; Descriptive Petrography [1931], vol. I, p. 129). His classification is “strictly mineralogical, quantitative and modal” and used as its base the “double tetrahedron” with quartz, potassium feldspar, sodium feldspar, calcium feldspar, and the feldspathoids as end members (Descriptive Petrography, p. 141). It is this classification that is used in his major scientific work, the four-volume Descriptive Petrography of the Igneous Rocks. It includes complete petrographic descriptions, chemical and modal analyses, and the historical background of virtually all known igneous rocks, as well as biographical sketches of the early petrologists responsible for identifying and studying many of those rocks. Although Johannsen’s classification is not in use today, the information contained in this work serves as a standard reference in the field of petrography and as a monument to the thoroughness and meticulous attention to detail so characteristic of his scientific work.

Johannsen retired in 1937. The remaining twenty-five years of his life were spent in nonscientific pursuits, yet the two works produced during this period are indicative of his scientific approach. From his keen interest in the “dime and nickel novels” of the late nineteenth century came the history and biographies of the House of Beadle and Adams. His collection of the first editions of the works of Charles Dickens provided the source for a detailed examination of the plates in Dicken’s novels and the publication of Hablot Knight Browne (1815-1822): Phiz—Illustrations From the Novels of Charles Dickens. These works attest to Johannsen’s unwavering eye for detail, a trait revealed throughout his entire career.


I. Original Works. Johannsen wrote twenty-two scientific papers dealing with improvements of the petrographic microscope, optical analysis of minerals, rock classification, and reviews of early petrologists’ published works. A complete bibliography is in D. J. Fisher, “Memorial to Albert Johannsen,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America,73 (1962), 109-114. His paper on rock classification is “Suggestions for a Quantitative Mineralogical Classification of Igneous Rocks,” in Journal of Geology, 25 (1917), 63-97. Several books of importance are Determination of Rock-Forming Minerals (New York, 1908); Manual of Petrographic Methods (New York, 1918); and Essentials for the Microscopic Determination of Rock-Forming Minerals and Rocks in Thin Section (Chicago, 1922). His most important scientific work, still in print, is Descriptive Petrography of the Igneous Rocks, 4 vols. (Chicago, 1931-1938).

Johannsen’s nonscientific works are The House of Beadle and Adams, 2 vols. (Norman, 1950); and Hablot Knight Browne (1815-1882): Phiz—Illustrations From the Novels of Charles Dickens (Chicago, 1956).

II. Secondary Literature. The most complete discussion of Johannsen’s life is in D. J. Fisher’s article mentioned above. There is also a biographical sketch in J. Cattell, ed., American Men of Science, 10th ed. (Tempe, 1960), p. 2007.

A review of vols. III and IV of Johannsen’s major work, Descriptive Petrography, including additional insights into the man and scientist, is in T. T. Quirke, “Reviews,” in Journal of Geology,47 (1939), 774-776.

Wallace A. Bothner