Kay, George Frederick

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Kay, George Frederick

(b, Virginia, Ontario, 14 September 1873; d. Iowa City, Iowa, 19 July 1943)


Kay’s forebears were English and Scotch-Irish pioneers in Ontario. Born on the family farm, he was the fifth of seven children of Joseph Sidney and Elizabeth Marshall Rae Kay. He married Bethea Hopper of Paisley, Ontario; they had two sons and a daughter.

At the University of Toronto (B.A., 1900; M.S., 1901) and the University of Chicago (Ph.D., 1914, under Joseph Iddings), Kay was trained in mineralogy, petrology, and economic geology. He did exploration work in Ontario and—for the U. S. Geological Survey—in Colorado, Oregon, California, and Alaska. Although his first faculty post was at the University of Kansas (1904–1907), he was associated with the University of Iowa for thirty-six years as professor of geology and (1907–1943), head of the department of geology and state geologist (1911–1934), and dean of the College of Liberal Arts (1917–1941). He was also an officer of the Geological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Kay’s interests were scientific, practical, and philosophical in nature, reflecting his Calvinist upbringing and his lifelong commitment to education (even while a dean he continued teaching both graduate and undergraduate courses). His scientific contributions in both his early and later years were significant. Before 1910, with J. S. Diller, Kay mapped nickel, copper, and gold deposits in Oregon. Then of little interest, the host rocks (Franciscan) are now of primary importance in new concepts of global tectonics. In Iowa, Kay became interested in Pleistocene deposits. He proposed the term “gumbotil” for dark clays he believed were formed by chemical weathering of till (some he described are now thought to be accretion gleys). Using gumbotils and time estimates based on weathering rates, Kay correlated drift sheets and developed a series of absolute dates for glacial and interglacial stages. His work is still evident in the stratigraphic nomenclature of the Pleistocene, especially that of the upper Mississippi Valley. His final scientific effort was the preparation of a three-part monograph, based on his own work and that of others, on the Pleistocene geology of Iowa.


I. Original Works. Kay’s major writings are “Nickel Deposits of Nickel Mountain, Oregon,” in Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey, no. 315 (1907), 120–127; “Gold-quartz Mines of the Riddle Quadrangle, Oregon,” ibid., no. 340 (1908), 134–147; “Notes on Copper Prospects of the Riddle Quadrangle, Oregon,” ibid., no. 340 (1908), 152; “Mineral Resources of the Grants Pass Quadrangle and Bordering Districts, Oregon,” ibid., no. 380 (1909), 48–79, written with J. S. Diller; “Gumbotil, a New Term in Pleistocene Geology,” in Science, n.s. 44 (1916), 637–638; “The Origin of Gumbotil,” in Journal of Geology, 28 (1920), 89–125, written with J. N. Pearce; “Description of the Riddle Quadrangle, Oregon,” in Geologic Atlas of the United States, no. 218 (1924), written with J. S. Diller; “The Relative Ages of the Iowan and Illinoian Drift Sheets,” in American Journal of Science, 5th ser., 16 (1928), 497–518; “Classification and Duration of the Pleistocene Period,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 42 (1931), 425–466; “Eldoran Epoch of the pleistocene Period,” ibid., 44 (1933), 669–674, written with M. M. Leighton; The Pleistocene Geology of Iowa: pt. I (repr.), “The Pre-Illinoian pleistocene Geology of Iowa,” written with E. T. Apfel, in Report of the Iowa Geological Survey, 34 (1929), 1–304; pt. 2 (repr.), “The Illinoian and PostIllinoian Pleistocene Geology of Iowa,” written with J.B. Graham, ibid., 38 (1943), 11–262; pt. 3, “The Bibliography of the Pleistocene of Iowa,” in Report of the Iowa Geological Survey (1943), 1–55.

II. Secondary Literature. See M. M. Leighton, “The Naming of the Subdivisions of the Wisconsin Glacial Stage,” in Science, 77 (1933), 168; R. V. Ruhe, Quaternary Landscapes in Iowa (Ames, Iowa, 1969); A. C. Trowbridge, “Memorial to George Frederick Kay,” in Proceedings. Geological Society of America (1944); 169–176; “George Frederick Kay, 1873–1943,” in Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science, 51 (1944), 109–111; and “Discussion, Accretion-Gley and the Gumbotil Dilemma,” in American Journal of Science, 259 (1961), 154–157; H. E. Wright, Jr., and David G. Frey, eds., The Quaternary of the United States (Princeton, 1965), pp. 8, 29–41, 527, 759–762.

Sherwood D. Tuttle