Schuchert, Charles

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(b. Cincinnati, Ohio, 3 July 1858: d. New Haven, Connecticut, 20 November 1942)


Schuchert began his career as an untrained amateur collector of fossils and completed it as perhaps the most influential synthesizer of historical geology in North America. The oldest of six children of an impoverished immigrant Bavarian cabinetmaker, he received formal scholling only between the ages of six and twelve in a Catholic parochial school, which he was forced to leave to work in the family business. By the time he reached twenty, his father’s health had failed and Schuchert was forced to support the entire household. In the meanwhile, fortunately, he had developed an intense interest in fossils and had amassed a significant collection.

Cincinnati, Ohio, lies in an area of Late Ordovican shales and limestone. These rocks are so crowded with fossils that before widespread urban paving specimens could even be collected from the street gutters after every rain. The city may well be built on the most fossiliferous spot on earth. For much of the nineteenth century, the “Cincinati school” of enthusiastic amateurs was a vital part of the American study of paleontology.

In 1878 Schuchert joined forces with E.O. UI-rich, another local worker who rose to worldwide prominence as a paleontologist. Subsequently Schuchert’s business was destroyed by fire, but in the interim he had learned the art of lithographic illustration. Between 1884 and 1887 he was employed by Ulrich, and they drew more than 100 plates of illustration of bryozonas—complex colonial organisms—for the geological surveys of Minesota and Illinosi. Concurrently he built up magnificent collection of fossil brachiopods.

Both Schuchert’s skill as an illustrator and the value of his collection induced James Hall, state geologist of New York, to employ him Beginning in November 1888 he spent thirty months in Albany assisting in both the ilustation and the writing of a classic text on brachiopods, but he received scant credit for his work Schucher worked for the Minnesota Geological Survey from 1891 to 1892, when avaialable funds were exhausted. He then assisted. C.E. Beecher at yale in the preparation of fossils on large slabs that were exhibited at the Columbian Exposition Chicago (1893).

C. D.Walcott, who had also worked under Hall’s supervision, which bordered on the tryannical, arranged in 1893 for Schuchert to joint the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington. When Walcott became director of the survey in 1894, most fossil collections were transferred to the U.S. National Museum, where Schuchert remained as curator for a decade. His summers were spent in fieldwork, including one season with R. E. Peary in western Greenland. During the winter he reorganized museum exhibits, curated collections, and studied fossils. He published about thirty papers during this decade, of which Synopsis of American Fossil Brachiopoda (1897) is the most enduring. He also prepared the section on Brachiopoda for the Zittel-Eastman Text-Book of Paleontology (1900).

Following Beecher’s death in 1904, Schuchert was invited to join the Yale University faculty. At the age of forty-six he began a second career as a professor; the transition from museum to classroom apparently was painful but eventually highly successful. For the next twenty-one years he trained and influenced dozens of graduate students. His portion of A Text-Book of Geology (1915). written with L. V. Pirsson, went through several revisions and for at least three decades was the definitive American text of historical geology. For ten years Schuchert was chairman of the geology department of the Sheffield Scientific School and then served two additional years as head of a university-wide department.

A direct outgrowth of Schuchert’s teaching efforts was the summarization of numerous stratigraphic details on maps to give a better picture of the changing distribution of land and seas during 600 million years. Although there is some doubt as to whether Schuchert or Ulrich was the first in North America to utilize this method of synthesizing data, there is no question as to the volume of work accomplished and the worldwide preeminence of Schuchert in this field. His 1910 “Paleogeography of North America” was a pioneer work and remains a classic. More than seventy-five other papers were written during this twenty-year interval. His work on older fossil starfish and a revision of the brachiopod section in the second edition (1913) of the Zittel-Eastman treatise are particularly noteworthy. He also directed substantial amounts of fieldwork with students in eastern Canada, a region in which he had special interest.

Schuchert completed his formal teaching career in 1923 but continued to advise and assist graduate students for almost two decades. His later research accomplishments were formidadle, even for a bachelor “wedded to his science.” With the aid of Clara Mae LeVene, he prepared another summary of published data on brachiopods, as well as a popular geology book and the definitive biography of the vertebrate paleontologist O. C. Marsh (1940). Schuchert and Cooper (1932) is a standard reference for the study of two orders of brachiopods, but only one of many papers produced. In keeping his textbook on historical geology current, he became increasingly concerned with worldwide problems of correlation and methodology in the science, and this breadth of interest is reflected in the titles of his papers.

The capstone of Schuchert’s career was the publication of volume 1 of Historical Geology of North America (1935), on the Antillean-Caribbean region. A second volume, on the stratigraphy of the eastern and central United States, was published the year following his death; and a third was left partially completed. Without question Schuchert was the leader in synthesizing the geologic history of North America and was the last to grasp the entire literature encompassing details of 600 million years of change.


Adolf Knopf, “Biographical Memoir of Charles Schuchert 1858–1942,” in Biographical Memoirs National Academy of Sciences, 27 (1952), 363–389, is the principal source that lists other memorials. In particular the memorial by C. O. Dunbar in Proceedings of the Geological Society of America for 1942 (1943), 217–240, should be consulted. The esteem in which the Schuchert and Dunbar text on historical geology was held may be gathered from a review of the fourth edition (1941) by Cary Croneis in Journal of Geology, 49 (1941), 776–779.

Ellis L. Yochelson