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Mather, William Williams


(b. Brooklyn, Connecticut, 24 May 1804; d. Columbus, Ohio, 25 February 1859)


Mather was a member of the New England Mather family, famous in the ministry, education, and literature. A boyhood interest in chemistry led him to mineralogy. In 1823 he entered West Point Military Academy and graduated in 1828. He remained in the army for eight years, partly on regular duty and partly as assistant professor of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. In 1833 he published Elements of Geology for the Use of Schools, which went through at least five editions. He was on topographic duty in 1835 as assistant geologist to G. W. Featherstonhaugh in making a geological study of the country from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to the Coteau des Prairies, in southwestern Minnesota. He resigned from the army in 1836 and Governor Marcy of New York appointed him geologist in charge of the first geological district of the New York survey. He completed his final report in 1843. During this time he organized the first geological survey of Ohio (1837–1840); was professor of natural science at Ohio University (1842–1845), and vice-president and acting president in 1845; acting professor of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology at Marietta College in 1846. He returned to Ohio University as vice-president and professor of natural science in 1847. From 1850 he was active as secretary and agricultural chemist of the Ohio State Board of Agriculture, as well as consultant on mineral resources for railroads in Kentucky and Ohio. An expert on coal geology, he had large interests in the development of Ohio coal lands.

“Not possessing the genius which dazzles, [Mather] had the intellect which achieved valuable results by patient and conscientious industry” (Popular Science Monthly, 49 [1896], 555). His most important geological work is embodied in his massive final report on the New York survey, which is notable not only for its vast detail of the structure and classification of the strata but also for the breadth of its coverage. His sections on the red rocks of the Catskill Mountains and his descriptions of the Quaternary deposits of the lower Hudson River valley and Long Island are still useful, although he did not accept Agassiz’s glacial theory. He was one of the first to recognize that the much disputed Taconic rocks are mainly metamorphosed early Paleozoic sediments and that the rocks of the Hudson highlands correspond in age and lithology to the ancient rocks of the Adirondacks.


I. Original Works. Mather’s most important work is Geology of New York. Part I, Comprising the Geology of the First Geological District (Albany, 1843).

II. Secondary Literature. See the unsigned “Sketch of Williams Mather,” in Popular Science Monthly, 49 (1896), 550–555, with portrait; I. J. Austin, “William Williams Mather,” in New England Historic-Genealogical Society, Memorial Biographies, 3 (1883), 339–355; C. H. Hitchcock, “Sketch of William Williams Mather,” in American Geologist, 19 (1897), 1–15, with portrait and a list of his publications; and Charles Whittlesey, “Personnel of the First Geological Survey of Ohio,” in Magazine of Western History, 2 (1885), 73–87.

John W. Wells

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