Russell, Richard Joel

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(b. Hayward, California, 16 November 1895; d. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 17 September 1971)

geomorphology, climatology.

Russell was the son of Frederick James Russell, a lawyer and estate manager, and Nellie Potter Morril. Thanks to his determined mother, his early schooling was eclectic but effective. He enrolled at Berkeley in 1915 to study forestry but soon switched to geology. During World War I he was in the Naval Reserve. Russell returned to take a bachelor’s degree in vertebrate paleontology (1920), then changed fields again to do graduate work in structural geology under George Louderback. Staff shortages in geography led him to instruct large undergraduate classes in elementary geography while learning the subject “on the fly.” He used undergraduates to help compile the detailed paper “Climates of California” (1926), the first of many papers in climatology that had such considerable influence that in five successive years he was offered a senior chair of climatology in the United States. However, climatology remained a hobby he could cultivate whenever administration curtailed field activities. In later years his climatic interests were expressed mainly through work on Quaternary chronology. Russell was president of both the Association of American Geographers (1948) and the Geological Society of America (1957), the only scholar to hold both posts after World War II. He founded the Coastal Studies Institute at Louisiana State University in 1954 and remained its director until 1966. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1959. Russell married Mary D. King on 1 January 1924; they had one son. His wife died in 1936, and on 20 August 1940 he married Josephine Burke. They had four sons.

The primary scientific influences on Russell at Berkeley were George Louderback and Andrew C. Lawson in geology, and Carl O. Sauer and William Morris Davis in geography, although his acceptance of Davis’s doctrines was never more than passing. Russell completed his Ph.D. in 1926 and was associate professor at Texas Technological College (Lubbock) for two overworked years until rescued by Henry Howe, a friend from graduate school at Berkeley who had established the geology department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Howe persuaded administrators that Russell should start the geography department. Russell arrived in Baton Rouge In September 1928 and never left the university staff. His primary interests became the fluvial geomorphology of large rivers and, after 1950, coastal geomorphology.

Several circumstances helped direct Russell’s attention to problems in the geomorphology of large rivers, such as the Mississippi and the Rhône. After 1928 the publication of detailed topographic maps of the Mississippi Delta made possible the accurate mapping of very-low-relief alluvial terrain. In association with Fred Kniffen, Russell began to explore the morphological forms of Louisiana, searching for Indian artifacts. Prompted by a question from Davis about the straightness of the Mississippi below New Orleans, he realized that the vertical dimension of floodplains held the secret to their evolution. This work was further stimulated by the arrival of Harold Fisk in 1935, and between them they demonstrated that the Mississippi Valley had to be understood in terms of fluctuating Quaternary sea levels, isostatic sinking in the delta region, and alternating Pleistocene periods of alluviation and erosion.

Recognition of the deep significance of this work by other geomorphologists was slow, although “Physiography of the Lower Mississippi River Delta” (1936) won the first Wallace W. Atwood Award from the Association of American Geographers and was soon cited in major textbooks. The depression years of the 1930’s, the years of World War II, and a postwar shift to quantitative and statistical work in fluvial geomorphology in a reaction against Davis’s doctrines all conspired to mask the importance of work that tied fluvial geomorphology intimately to Quaternary history. G. K. Gilbert foresaw this trend in 1890, and Russell took it as a text for his presidential address to the Geological Society of America in 1957, well in advance of recent recognition that only by exploiting dated Quaternary successions can a historical element be added to geomorphology with a temporal control not possible within classical Davisian precepts. Russell’s Mississippi work is not cited in modern texts on processes in fluvial geomorphology but is still controversial for regional geomorphology.

After World War II, Russell, through his membership of the Committee on Geography, Advisory to the Office of Naval Research (1949–1963), was led to study trafficability in Louisiana coastal marshes. A series of contracts with the Office of Naval Research led to the foundation of the Coastal Studies Institute and a worldwide study of coasts, primarily tropical, under Russell’s direction. In preparation for his retirement Russell began a study of beach rock, a puzzling feature of tropical coasts, and succeeded in showing how it developed as an interaction between carbonate-rich beach sediments and fresh groundwaters seeping onto the beach face (1967).


I. Original Works. Complete bibliographies (including abstracts) are in Kniffen and in Howe (see below). Russell’s professional letters, reports, papers, reprints, lectures, and other manuscripts are on deposit at the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. Some private sources are mentioned in Anderson (see below). Among his works are “Climates of California,” in University of California Publications in Geography, 2 , no. 4 (1926), 73–84; “Climatic Years,” in Geographical Review, 24 (1934), 92–103; “Physiography of the Lower Mississippi River Delta,” in Reports on the Geology of Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes, Louisiana Department of Conservation, Geological Bulletin, no. 8 (1936), 3–193; “Geological Geomorphology,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 69 (1958), 1–21; and River Plains and Sea Coasts (Berkeley, Cal., 1967).

II. Secondary Literature. Charles A. Anderson, “Richard Joel Russell,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 46 (1975), 369–394; Henry V. Howe, “Memorial to Richard Joel Russell,” in Geological Society of America. Memorials, 3 (1974), 165–174; Fred B. Kniffen, “Richard Joel Russell, 1895–1971,” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 63 (1973), 241–249; and William G. Mclntire, in Geographical Review, 63 (1973), 276–279.

Russell’s work is cited or discussed in Charles A. Cotton, Landscape as Developed by the Processes of Normal Erosion (Christchurch, New Zealand, 1941; 2nd ed., rev. and enl., 1948); Armin K. Lobeck, Geomorphology (New York, 1939); and William D. Thornbury, Principles of Geomorphology (New York, 1954; 2nd ed., 1969), and Regional Geomorphology of the United States (New York, 1965).

Keith J. Tinkler

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Russell, Richard Joel

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