Lawson, Andrew Cowper

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Lawson, Andrew Cowper

(b. Anstruther, Scotland, 25 July 1861; d. San Leandro, California, 16 June 1952)


The eldest of ten children of William Lawson and Jessie Kerr, Andrew was educated in public schools in Hamilton, Ontario. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1883 from the University of Toronto, the master’s degree in 1885, and the doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University in 1888. In 1890, after seven years with the Geological Survey of Canada, he joined the geology department of the University of California at Berkeley, where he was active for sixty years.

Lawson was raised a devout Calvinist. Through his studies he became an active opponent of dogma and gave up his religious beliefs, but he never effected a completed emotional adjustment to the change. In 1889 Lawson married Ludovika von Jansch, of Brünn, Moravia, who bore him four sons. She died in 1929. In 1931 he married Isabel R. Collins of Ottawa. He was survived by her and their one son and by two sons by his first wife. A man of powerful physique and dynamic drive, he continued working effectively well into his ninetieth year. Lawson served many learned and cultural societies with distinction and was, in 1926, president of the Geological Society of America. His achievements brought honors and recognition.

Lawson’s studies of isostasy over the three decades 1920-1950 have drawn special attention to its importance in diastrophism. In a number of general theoretical papers he developed the logical consequences of isostatic adjustment as an important factor in orogenesis, indeed in some instances as the determinative agent in the elevation of lofty mountains and the depression of deep troughs and basins. Widely distributed field evidence in support of his findings is presented in these writings and others following, eighteen papers in all, showing the importance of isostasy in the development of such features as the Sierra Nevada, the Great Valley of California, the Mississippi delta, and the Cordilleran shield.

From time to time for some forty years Lawson turned his attention to the region northwest of Lake Superior, and in thirty-five papers he presented a great body of new information and revised the correlation of the pre-Cambrian rocks over a large part of North America. In his early studies about Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake he found that the Laurentian, previously regarded as the oldest known formation and comprising metamorphosed sediments, was a granite intrusive into metamorphosed volcanic and sedimentary rocks which he called Keewatin. Underlying these he found another sedimentary series which he named Coutchiching and recognized as the oldest rocks in the region. His report of 1887 on these findings was published only after much controversy. Returning to this area in 1911, Lawson recognized two periods of batholithic invasion, the oldest being termed Laurentian and the younger Algoman, each followed by a great period of peneplanation. The resulting surfaces, termed the Laurentian peneplain and the Eparchean peneplain respectively, afforded references for the correlation of the invaded formations, and for the subsequently deposited sedimentary beds, over vast areas.

In Berkeley, Lawson initiated a systematic investigation of the geology of the western coastal area and established the Bulletin of the Geology, for publishing papers relating to this work. Along with this undertaking, assisted by various students, Lawson carried out the preparation of the San Francisco Folio, which included five quadrangles in the San Francisco Bay region. This work was published by the U. S. Geological Survey in 1914. At his death, the Bulletin comprised twenty-eight volumes of from 400 to 600 pages each.

As chairman of the Department of Geology at the university for more than twenty years, Lawson was diligent in promoting its growth while continuing his own research work. For three years he was, at the same time, dean of the College of Mining, where he established instruction and research in petroleum engineering, the first program of the kind in any American university.

After the California earthquake of 18 April 1906, Lawson supervised the preparation of a report by the State Earthquake Investigation Commission. It included two volumes and an atlas comprising 500 pages and for many years it was the most informative treatise published on any earthquake; and it led to many new developments, one of the more important being the initiation of the elastic rebound theory of the dynamics of earthquakes by H. F. Reid. Lawson’s continued activity in this field brought about the organization of the Seismological Society of America; the founding of the Bulletin of this society; the construction in Berkeley, in 1911, of the most complete seismograph station in America; the formulation of a plan, later carried out with the help of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, for an extensive network of seismograph stations in California; and the establishment at the University of California, in 1927, of the first professorship in seismology in the United States.

As a mining consultant Lawson not only visited most of the mining camps in North America, but worked in many from time to time over a period of years. At the same time, he was also a consultant in a number of construction engineering projects, including the Golden Gate bridge.

His sharp wit, dynamic personality, and sound thinking marked Lawson as a man feared in debate and revered in counsel. As an architect and skilled workman he put up several fireproof and earthquakeresistant buildings in the vicinity of his home. He collected paintings and wrote fifty-five poems expressing inner thoughts of considerable variety, from the light and cheerful to the profound and philosophical.


A complete bibliography of all Lawson’s 114 works is included in the biography by Francis E. Vaughan, Andrew C. Lawson, Scientist, Teacher, Philosopher (Glendale, Calif. 1970).

The following are representative: “The Archean geology of the region north-west of Lake Superior,” in Fourth International Geological Congress, London, 1888. Compte Rendu (1891), 130-152; “The Cordilleran Mesozoic revolution,” in Journal of Geology, 1 (1893), 579-586; “The Eparchean interval; a criticism of the use of the term Algonkian,” in University of California Publications, Department of Geology, Bulletin, 3 (1902), 51-62; “The California earthquake of April 18, 1906,” written with others, the report of the State Earthquake Investigation Commission, which is Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication No. 87; “The Archean geology of Rainy Lake restudied,” which is Geological Survey of Canada, Memoir 40; “A standard scale for the pre-Cambrian rocks of North America,” in Twelfth International Geological Congress, Toronto, 1913. Compte Rendu (1914), 349-370; “Ore deposition in and near intrusive rocks by meteoric waters,” in “University of California Publications, Department of Geology, Bulletin, 8 (1914), 219-242; “The spirit of science,”in University of California Chronicle, 22 (1920), 143-161; “The geological implications of the doctrine of isostasy,”in National Research Council, Bulletin, 8 , pt. 4, no. 46 (1924); “The classification and correlation of the pre-Cambrian rocks,”in University of California Publications, Department of Geological Sciences, Bulletin, 19 , no. 11 (1930), 275-293.

Francis E. Vaughan

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Lawson, Andrew Cowper

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