Newberry, John Strong

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(b. Windsor, Connecticut, 22 December 1822; d. New Haven, Connecticut, 7 December 1892), paleontology, geology.

Newberry was the son of Elizabeth Strong Newberry and Henry Newberry, an entrepreneur who prospered in the development of the Western Reserve lands in Ohio. When James Hall studied the geology of Ohio in 1841, he met young Newberry and encouraged his interest in the fossils of nearby coal fields. Newberry graduated from Western Reserve College in 1846 and from Cleveland Medical School as an M.D. in 1848. In 1849 and 1850 he attended scientific lectures by Adolphe Brongniart, Charles Robin, and Louis Cordier at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. He returned to practice medicine in Cleveland from 1851 to 1855. Newberry married Sarah Brownell Gaylord of Cleveland; they had five sons and a daughter. From 1861 to 1865 he served as a doctor and executive with the United States Sanitary Commission.

Newberry served as physician-naturalist for several important army exploring expeditions in the trans-Mississippi West. He was with the Pacific Railroad Survey group led by Lieut. R. S. Williamson, which explored the northern Pacific coast in 1855 and 1856. He then joined the party under Lieut. Joseph C. Ives, which surveyed the Colorado River in 1857 and 1858. In 1859 he accompanied Capt. John N. Macomb on the survey of the area around Santa Fe. Newberry was professor of geology at the Columbia University School of Mines from 1866 to his death, and he is credited with making that part of the university a first-rate scientific institution. He worked as a paleobotanist for the Hayden and Powell Surveys in the 1870’s and directed the Ohio State Geological Survey from 1869 to 1874. Newberry was a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences (1863) and of the Geological Society of America (1888), and in 1867 he presided over the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He helped revitalize the Lyceum of Natural History of New York City, which became, with his guidance, the New York Academy of Sciences.

As his appointments suggest, Newberry was a field scientist; when he needed a petrographic sample studied under the microscope or a chemical analysis done, he usually asked a colleague or student to do it. Although he contributed to nearly every branch of geology, he concentrated on paleobotany, especially on the stratigraphic relations and the fossil flora of American coal beds. Beginning in 1859, he argued for a Cretaceous age for the Western lignites, opposing Lesquereux, who thought they were Tertiary, and Marcou, who said they were Jurassic.1 Lester Frank Ward’s work (1885) on the Laramie flora convinced Newberry that there were several distinct beds of both Tertiary and Cretaceous age.22 Newberry also wrote on glacial phenomena in the Great Lakes and Midwest area, but he was unaware that more than one stage of glaciation affected the region. Newberry was a staunch uniformitarian in geological philosophy. For example, his theory of cycles of deposition (1873), which fits American rocks into sequence by texture and by the nature of organic contents, was based on an analogy to shores, continental shelves, and ocean bottoms.3 He is best known for his accurate description (1861) of the Grand Canyon as erosion on a large scale, an explanation he buttressed with analogies to present-day erosion patterns in the Colorado River Basin.4


1. See Newberry’s letter in Ferdinand Hayden and Fielding Meek, “On the So-Called Triassic Rocks of Kansas and Nebraska,” in American Journal of Science, 2nd ser., 27 (1859), 33; and Newberry, “Explorations in New Mexico,” ibid., 28 (1859;, 298–299.

2. Ward, “Synopsis of the Flora of the Laramie Group,” in Report of the United States Geological Survey (Washington, 1885), 399–557. Newberry’s rather grudging admission appeared in his article, “The Laramie Group,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 1 (1890), 524–541.

3. “Circles of Deposition in American Sedimentary Rocks,” in Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 22 (1873), 185–196.

4. “Geological Report,” in Joseph C. Ives, Report Upon the Colorado River of the West, Explored in 1857 and 1858, U.S., Congress, Senate, Executive Document (1861), pp. 25, 32,41–18, 103.


I. Original Works. For a bibliography of Newberry’s writings see Charles A. White, “Biographical Memoir of John Strong Newberry,” in Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 6 (1909), 1–24. White’s list is full but not exhaustive. For other publications by Newberry, see Max Meisel, A Bibliography of American Natural History: The Pioneer Century, 1769–1865, 3 vols. (Brooklyn, N. Y., 1924–1929); and Lawrence Schmeckebier, Catalogue and Index of the Hayden, King, Powell, and Wheeler Surveys, in Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey, 222 (Washington, 1904). The citations in White are casual and must be checked against the sources. White occasionally paraphrased titles, omitted page numbers, or failed to indicate whether the item was an abstract rather than the full piece. White’s list is especially inaccurate for government documents.

Newberry’s frequent articles (1880–1889) in the Columbia University School of Mines Quarterly appear to be written versions of his classroom lectures. Newberry’s MS notes from the lectures at Paris are at the New York Botanical Garden.

II. Secondary Literature. White’s memoir is a convenient and adequate account of Newberry’s life. For citations to other biographies, see George P. Merrill’s article on Newberry in Dictionary of American Biography; and Meisel, I, 214. Merrill has a useful ch. on the lignite controversy in The First One Hundred Years of American Geology (New Haven, 1924), 579–593. William H. Goetzmann reevaluates Newberry’s work in the American West, esp, his Grand Canyon monograph, in Army Exploration in the American West 1803–1863 (New Haven, 1959), 317 ff., and in Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (New York, 1966), 307 ff.

Michele L. Aldrich

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Newberry, John Strong

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