Mather, Kirtley Fletcher

views updated


(b. Chicago, lllinois, 13 February 1888; d. Albuquerque, New Mexico, 7 May 1978)


Kirtley Mather was descended from the Puritan Mathers of New England. William Green Mather, a railroad agent, and Julia (King) Mather, Kirtley’s parents, were not college educated, but taught their children to value education and a nondoctrinaire Baptist faith. Mather’s interest turned to geology in high school, was deepened at Denison University (B.S., 1909), and was honed at the University of Chicago (Ph.D., 1915). In June 1912 Mather married his college sweetheart, Marie Porter. He left graduate school to teach at the University of Arkansas (1911–1914), but he returned to Chicago to finish his dissertation on Morrowan fossils of Arkansas and Oklahoma. From 1915 until 1918 Mather taught at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. For the next six years he taught at Denison University, moving to Harvard University in 1924, where he remained on the active faculty until 1954.

Political activism and a desire to demonstrate the mutual relevance of science and religion are hallmarks of Kirtley Mather’s life. He appeared at the Scopes trial, on Darrow’s defense team, arguing that evolution was true but need not undermine Christian faith. He fought vigorously against teachers’ oaths and all infringements on academic freedom. Mather’s gentlemanly but determined style earned applause from liberals but led to criticism from some quarters during the McCarthy era of the 1950’s. In March 1953 he was subpoenaed by the Jenner Subcommittee to discuss subversion in higher education, but was not personally charged with any misconduct. The scientific community elected Mather president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1951), and he served four terms as president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1957–1961). Marie, with whom Kirtley raised three daughters, died in 1971; he married Muriel S. Williams in 1977. Mather was a driving force in adult education, the civil liberties movement, the American Association of University Professors, the YMCA, peace organizations, and many groups that fostered a dialogue between science and religion.

Field observation was a strength of Mather’s geologic research. That was evident in his first professional article, written while an undergraduate, on the genesis of a gorge in central Ohio. During and after graduate school, Mather conducted geomorphic research with Wallace W. Atwood in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Petroleum exploration in Kentucky and Oklahoma occupied his summers of 1917 and 1918, and he investigated oil potential in the mountains and jungles of Bolivia in 1919 and 1920. His reports of that work earned him an invitation to Harvard University as visiting professor for 1923. Field exploration in Alaska, Nova Scotia, Mexico, and California, where Mather consulted for the United States government in the Elk Hills Reservoir case of 1926, rounded out his firsthand involvement with petroleum geology. In the 1930’s Mather and Harvard graduate students investigated the geomorphology of Cape Cod. Mather’s last research article, coauthored in 1965 with his son-in-law, Sherman A. Wengerd, concerned the age of the Ridgway Till of Colorado.

Mather considered himself to be a generalist and a liberally educated scientist. The breadth of his publication record bears out that assessment. Research interests included geomorphology, paleontology, petroleum geology, and resource-distribution analysis. But Mather’s research-related publications were a small part of his total output of books, reviews, and over 250 published articles. He was more a communicator, educator, and popularizer than a researcher. Professors such as Kirtley Mather often contribute to science in ways that do not fit the simplistic equation that merit equals the number of research papers. Teaching, reviewing books, pioneering the use of media in science education, and defending academic freedom were among the activities that Mather pursued throughout his career. His Denison students included Carey Croneis, Howard Jefferson, L. Don Leet, Alonzo Quinn, A. Nelson Sayre, and C. Langdon White, all of whom became well-known earth scientists. At Harvard, Mather was appreciated for his eloquence, clarity, and range of interests. Few graduate students had him as their prime research adviser, but he served on doctoral committees of many who were to become leading geologists.

Mather’s Harvard and Radcliffe lectures in introductory geology were widely regarded as responsible for influencing an entire generation of geologists in the choice of their careers. They also provided a training ground for his teaching assistants, whose numbers include many leading figures in geology, among them senior officers of the United States Geological Survey (including at least one head, H. W. Menard), senior professors at American and foreign universities, and the officers of geological societies and commissions. He was a gifted photographer who incorporated slides and movies of geologic features into his teaching. Today’s scientific documentaries descend from the pioneering efforts of Mather and others in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

In that same era he chaired the editorial board of the Scientific Book Club Review. Board colleagues included Arthur Compton. Robert Millikan, Harlan Stetson, and Edward Thorndike. From 1943 to 1954 Mather served as editor of “The Scientist’s Bookshelf” in the American Scientist, and he was the science reviewer from 1946 through 1975 for the Key Reporter of Phi Beta Kappa. His reviews, of more than twelve hundred books, transcended mere listings of contents as he informed the reader of the essence of the author’s message. Civil rights and civil liberties were important to Mather, whether the issue was education for blacks and women, the right of political dissent, or the value of communication among scientists around the world. Along with his close friend Harlow Shapley. Mather was a respected scientist who was vocal about civil liberties in the McCarthy era of the 1950’s. That political activism did not dissuade scientists from electing him president for 1951 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The social implications of science, antiscientific trends, the responsibility of scientists to inform the public, and the need for improved science education were among the issues that Mather addressed. His effectiveness as a leader of the scientific community, and of many organizations, was due to his warmth, charm, humor, and integrity.


I. Original Works. Mather followed his own advice about the need for scientists to communicate with the public. His early books, such as Old Mother Earth (Cambridge, Mass., 1928), Science in Search of God (New York, 1928), and Sons of the Earth (New York, 1930), were aimed at enlightening the reader about the wonders of geology and the interactions of science and religion. He developed the same topics in extensive lecture tours and the innovative use of radio as an educational tool. Texts for many of his speeches may be found in the Harvard University Archives. One well-received geological publication was the Wallace Atwood and Mather United States Geological Survey Professional Paper 166 (Washington, D.C., 1932) on the geomorphology of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Adult Education: A Dynamic for Democracy (New York, 1937), written with Dorothy Hewitt, was widely recognized as a fundamental contribution to the field.

Geology students were served by the laboratory manuals (1934, 1950, 1952) that Mather developed with his students C. J. Roy and L. R. Thiesmeyer. Enough and to Spare (New York, 1944) contended that science, good planning, and international cooperation should combine to allow worldwide prosperity based on well-managed resources. Study of the history of geology was furthered by publication of A Source Book in Geology (New York, 1939), written with S. L. Mason, and Source Book in Geology, 1900–1950 (Cambridge, Mass., 1967). Mather was instrumental in the genesis of the journal Daedalus, sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Earth Beneath Us (New York, 1964), won prizes for the best popular science book of the year. Mather authored the Dictionary of Scientific Biography articles on T. C. Chamberlin, Reginald Daly, August Foerste, Rollin Salisbury, and others.

II. Secondary Literature. Valuable accounts include Sherman Wengerd’s memorial in the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, 62 (1978), 2337–2340, and the commentary of Harvard colleagues in Harvard Gazette (11 July 1980), 6. Kennard Bork has written a biographic article, “Kirtley Fletcher Mather’s Life in Science and Society,” in Ohio Journal of Science, 82 (1982), 74–95. Important archival materials, by and about Mather, exist at Harvard University, Denison University, and the University of Chicago.

Kennard B. Bork

About this article

Mather, Kirtley Fletcher

Updated About content Print Article