White, Charles David

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(b. near Palmyra, New York, 1 July 1862; d. Washington, D.C., 7 February 1935), geology.

A childhood spent on the farm of his parents, Asa Kendrick and Elvira Foster White, instilled in White a love of botany and the outdoors. He prepared for college at nearby Marion Collegiate Institute, where its principal, Daniel Van Cruyningham, a former hired hand on the White farm, strengthened his interest in botany. After teaching in rural schools for two years, David–as he came to be known—won a scholarship to Cornell University (B.S., 1886); and attracted by the courses of Henry Shaler Williams, he turned to paleobotany. Williams recommended him for his ability in drawing fossil plants to Lester F. Ward of the U.S. Geological Survey, and in 1886 White began his forty-nine-year research and administrative career with that organization.

From 1910 to 1912 White was head of the Section of Eastern Coalfields and then served as chief geologist for ten years. In 1922 he returned to his own research but gave considerable time to advisory committee appointments for the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, and professional societies. He was also curator of paleobotany at the U.S. National Museum from 1903 to 1935.

In addition to his many memberships (some honorary) in professional societies, White received numerous awards; D.Sc. from the University of Rochester (1924), the University of Cincinnati (1924), and Williams College (1925): the Walcott Medal and the Mary Clark Thompson Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, of which he became a member in 1912; the Penrose Medal of the Society of Economic Geologists; and the Boverton Redwood Medal of the Institute of Petroleum Technologists of London. He served as president of the Paleontological Society, the Washington Academy of Sciences, the Geological Society of Washington, and the Geological Society of America.

White’s work on fossil plants began with a restudy of the Lacoe collection of Carboniferous specimens, followed by fieldwork on Paleozoic plants in the Appalachian trough and elsewhere. By 1896 he was convincingly able to correlate stratigraphy on the basis of paleobotany and to persuade doubting geologists of the vast extent of the Pennsylvanian Pottsville formation. Turning to the origin of peats and coals and then to the new field of petroleum, he soon established himself as the foremost authority on carbonaceous deposits. Coal and oil, he said in 1908, were the products of sedimentary deposits of organic materials, changed into carbon by chemical and physical action over a long period of time and varied by the original composition, the length of time, and fluctuations in pressure and temperature. The plants forming them grew under uniform humid tropical conditions, and coals formed directly from these in place. One of the first strong advocates of the theory that carbonaceous sediments are progressively of higher grade with increasing metamorphism, White presented contoured maps of Appalachian regions that showed the increases in coal hardness as the intensity of deformation increased (1909). This theory proved to be of considerable economic value in the search for coal.

In 1915 White presented his most valuable contribution, the carbon-ratio theory: As the percentage of fixed carbon in coals increases with higher temperature and pressure, the accompanying oils became increasingly lighter (that is, of higher grade) until, above 70 percent fixed carbon, only gas or neither oil nor gas is found. Ignored by the profession until Myron L. Fuller revived it ten years later, this theory, despite known exceptions, has saved considerable useless drilling. White enlarged upon it in 1935 and revised the “dead line” to 60 percent fixed carbon.

Deeply involved in petroleum research through his Geological Survey position, White led a drive to estimate the nation’s oil reserves, especially because of World War I commitments. He pioneered in the investigation of oil shales for future use, instigated studies of temperature records in deep bore holes and mines, and was the first to apply gravimetry to finding anticlinal structure (Damon Mound, Texas). Through the National Research Council he founded a program of basic research on petroleum.

In addition to his many publications on Paleozoic flora, White also dealt with climates of that era and concluded that the extensive Pennsylvanian Pottsville represented its most luxuriant vegetation. He postulated that diastrophism, in creating geographic alterations, is the major cause of climatic change. In his final years he began studies of the Precambrian lime-secreting algae of the Grand Canyon and Glacier National Park.


I. Orignal Works. White’s 200 publications deal most significantly with coal and petroleum geology. The comprehensive “The Origin of Coal,” Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Mines, 38 (1913), was written with Reinhardt Thiessen. The carbon-ratio theory was first expounded in “Some Relations in Origin Between Coal and Petroleum,” in Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, 5 (1915), 189–212; and was amplifies. just prior to White’s death, in “Metamorphism of Organic Sediments and Derived Oils,” in Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, 19 , no. 5 (1935), 589–617. His mature views on coals and oils were effectively stated in “The Carbonaceous Sediments,” in W. H. Twenhofel, ed., Treatise on Sedimentation (Baltimore, 1926: 1932). 351–430.

White produced a number of early papers on paleobotany, of which the monumental “Fossil Flora of the Lower Coal Measures of Missouri,” U. S. Geologicala Survey Mongraph, no. 37 (1899), is an outstanding example. A long–intended monograph on the Pottsville flora was never completed, but the MS of “Fossil Flora of the Wedington Sandstone Member of the Fayetteville Shale” was published posthumously as U. S. Geological Survey Professional Ppaper no. 186–B (1937).

His studies of plants led White to theories of climate changes, mainly of the Paleozoic, as in “Permo–Carbon–iferous Climatic Changes in South America,“in Journal of Geology, 15 (1907), 615–633: and in his significant “Permian of Western America From the Paleobotanical Standpoint,” in Proceedings of the Pan–Pacific Science Congress, /1923, II (Melbourne, 1924), 1050–1077. His discussion of diastrophism as the major cause of climatic change appeared in “Upper Paleozoic Climate as Indicated by Fossil Plants,” in Scientific Monthly, 20 , no. 5 (1925), 465–473; and is elaborated in his paper on more recent changes, “Geologic Factors Affecting and Possibly Controlling Pleistocene Ice Sheet Development it North America,” in Journal of the Washington Acaderns’ of Sciences, 16 , no. 3 (1926), 69–72, an abstract.

Further papers on these and his other varied interests, including the estimates of petroleum reserves, are listed in the bibliographies cited below.

II. Secondary Literature. White dropped the name of Charles in 1886 and thus is commonly found in indexes as David White. Charles Schuchert summarized his early life and contributions to geology in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 17 (1935–1937), 187–221. with bibliography; see also W. C. Mendenhall, “Memorial of David White,” in Proceedings. Geological Society of America for 1936 (1937), 271–292, with bibliography. Hugh D. Miser, “David white,” in Bulletin of the American Association (of Petroleum Geologists, 19, no. 6 (1935), 925–932, covers especially White’s work in petroleum geology.

Elizabeth Noble Shor