Leverett, Frank

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(b. Denmark, Iowa, 10 March 1859; d. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 15 November 1943)

glacial geology.

Leverett was the eldest child of Ebenezer Turner Leverett and Rowena Houston Leverett, descendants of English emigrants who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the mid seventeenth century. He was educated in Denmark, Iowa, first in the public schools and later at the Denmark Academy. Upon completion of these studies in 1878, at age nineteen, he took a teaching position in the public schools in Denmark, From 1880 to 1883 he served as instructor in natural sciences at the Denmark Academy. This appointment proved at be a turning point in Leverett’s career, for during these years he became interested in gelogy, frequently leading his students to fossiliferous localities in nearby Pennsylvanian strata. During this time he also fulfilled college language requirements in Latin and Greek that would permit him to continue his education.

Though he never again engaged in full-time teaching, Leverett maintained close ties with the academic community through his position as staff lecturer at the University of Michigan. He spent the academic year 1883–1884 at Colorado College, Colorada Springs, where he further developed his interest in geology, particularly mineralogy. In September 1884 he entered Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts at Ames and received that B.S. in 1885. During this relatively brief stay at Iowa State the pattern of his professional career began to unfold. He wrote, for example, a senior thesis on an artesian well near Des Moines; and his first scientific paper, “Drainage Changes in Eastern Iowa,” was published in 1885 in Aurora, the college monthly, Water wells and drainage changes induced by continental glaciation were subjects that held his interest throughout his professional career.

On 22 December 1887 Leverett married Frances E. Gibson, who died in 1892. He married Dorothy Christina Park on 18 December 1895. There were no children from either marriage.

Leverett was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1924 and to the National Academy of Sciences in 1939. He was a fellow of the Geological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, serving as vice president of the latter in 1928. He was president of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters in 1910. Leverett was a member of the academies of science of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Washington, D. C., and the Geological Society of Washington; a corresponding member of the National Geographic Society; and a member of the American Geophysical Union, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi. He was awarded an honorary D.Sc. by the university of Michigan in 1930.

Leverett’s professional career began in 1886, when he was hired as a field assistant by Thomas C. Chamberlain, who was in charge of the Division of Glacial Geology of the U.S. Geological Survey. Leverett remained a field assistant until 1890, at which time he was appointed an assistant geologist with the survey. In 1901 he advanced to geologist, and in 1928 to senior geologist, the position he held at the time of his retirement in 1929. From 1909 until 1929 he was staff lecturer in glacial geology at the University of Michigan.

Leverett was first and foremost a field geologist. Although he traveled extensively in Canada and Europe as well as in the United States, his published work deals almost exclusively with the glacial geology of the north-central United States. Working at a time and in areas where few topographic base maps existed, Leverett mapped glacial deposits and land-forms with a precision and attention to detail previously unknown. Most of his fieldwork was done on foot and alone. He estimated that in the course of his work he had walked the equivalent of four times around the globe. His detailed mapping extends from the eastern Dakotas to Pennsylvania and is meticulously documented in more than 300 field notebooks on file with the U.S. Geological Survey. It has been estimated that these contain more than 45,000 pages of notes.

Leverett described his field technique in some detail, stating, according to Rieck and Winters (1981), that an “effective field party” should include people who, collectively, possess the following skills: the ability to recognize, map, photograph, and sketch all classes of glacial features; sufficient familiarity with the region to “work out the directions of ice movement and to discriminate superposed drift sheets of different constitution and age”; the ability to survey and make topographic maps; and familiarity “with plant communities and their relations to various soils,” including buried soils. Leverett thought that a party of four was necessary to encompass all these specialties. That he worked alone is an indication of the breadth of his knowledge and understanding.

Leverett’s published work is monumental; at the time of his death he ranked first among the members of the U.S. Geological Survey in terms of the number of reports published—some 170 titles. Though, by virtue of his training and temperament, he was ideally suited to engage in the detailed but broad-ranging studies that these reports represent, the early influence of Chamberlin is nevertheless clearly evident. In 1884 Chamberlin had published his report on the terminal moraine of the second glacial epoch and recognized the overall continuity of these deposits from the Dakotas to the Atlantic. This work provided a broad outline; Leverett contributed detailed descriptions and interpretations, tasks for which Chamberlin offered encouragement and counsel, but that he had neither the time nor the inclination to undertake himself. Leverett’s work documented multiple glaciation, implying climatic change. Aside from his detailed maps, Leverett’s greatest contribution to glacial geology was the historical framework and the evidence of multiple glaciation that emerged from his work.


I. Original Works. A small selection of Leverett’s published works includes; “On the Correlation of Moraines with Raised Beaches of Lake Erie,” in Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, 8 (1892), 233–240; The Illinois Glacial Lobe, U.S. Geological Survey Monograph 38 (1899); Glacial Formations and Drainage Features of the Erie and Ohio Basins, U.S. Geological Survey Monograph 41 (1902); and The Pleistocene of Indiana and Michigan and the History of the Great Lakes, U.S. Geological Survey Monograph 53 (1915), written with Frank B. Taylor, as well as numerous other monographs published by the U.S. Geological Survey. The department of geography at Michigan State University in East Lansing and the U.S. Geological Survey Library at Denver, Colorado, have numerous letters, field notebooks, and other prime source material on file.

II. Secondary Literature. Stanard G. Bergquist, “Memorial to Frank Leverett,” in Science, 99 (1944), 312–313; William H. Hobbs, “Biographical Memoir of Frank Leverett, 1859–1943,” in Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Sciences, 23 (1944), 203–215, and “Memorial to Frank Leverett,” in Proceedings of the Geological Society of America (1943), 183–193, with bibliography; Richard L. Rieck and Harold A. Winters, “Frank Leverett, Pleistocene Scholar and Field Worker,” in Journal of Geological Education, 29 (1981), 222–227; George M. Stanley, “Memorial to Frank Leverett,” in Forty-Sixth Annual Report: The Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters (1945), 49–53, and “Frank Leverett,” in Dictionary of American Biography, supp. 3 (1973), 455–456; and Harold A. Winters and Richard L. Rieck, “Frank Leverett: Michigan’s Master Geologist,” in Michigan History, 64 (1980), 11–13.

Richard C. Anderson

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