Skip to main content

Willis, Bailey


(b. Idlewild-on-Hudson, New York, 31 March 1857; d. Palo Alto, California, 19 February 1949)


The early schooling of Bailey Willis, son of poet Nathaniel Parker Willis, was a haphazard mixture of private tutoring, some classroom instruction, and listening to the literary repartee engendered by his father’s friends and work. After Nathaniel Willis’ death in 1868, the boy’s maternal grandfather, Arctic explorer Joseph Grinnell, decided that his bright grandson should have the advantage of more rigorous schooling. So at the age of thirteen Bailey was enrolled in a German boarding school under stern Prussian professors who encouraged concentration on studies by liberal application of the rattan switch. Fortified by four years of this preparation, young Willis returned to New York in 1874, and enrolled at Columbia University, where he received degrees in mining engineering (1878) and civil engineering (1879).

In 1880 the Northern Pacific Railway hired Willis as geologist, and sent him to explore for coal in the forest wilderness of Washington Territory. East of his area towered Mount Rainier, then known by its Indian name, Tacoma. This glacierclad volcano claimed Willis’ interest for the rest of his life; his first two scientific publications are about it. and he pioneered a new climbing route to its summit via glaciers on its north side. In 1894 Willis submitted documents to Congress that led, in 1899, to establishment of Mount Rainier National Park.

In 1882 Willis married Altena Holstein Grinnell: she died four years later, leaving an infant daughter. In 1898 Willis married Margaret Delight Baker; three children were born of this union. Willis was frequently away from home, engaged in geologic field work or foreign exploration. Margaret Baker Willis saved all his letters written during these travels. From these letters, after his retirement. came three partly autobiographical books: Living Africa (1930), A Yanqui in Patagonia (1947), and Friendly China (1949).

Willis was employed by the U.S. Geological Survey from 1882 to 1915, except for one year (1903–1904) spent in geologic exploration in China, and four years (1910–1914) helping the Argentine government start a geological survey and plan irrigation projects. During his career with the U.S. Geological Survey Willis published more than sixty scientific papers including several long monographs. One of many papers that received wide attention came from Willis’ deep interest in the complexly folded rocks of the Appalachian Mountains. Trained as an engineer. Willis longed to simulate the great Appalachian folds in the laboratory. He built a “pressure box” and began experiments. After initial failures Willis recognized that materials used in his small pressure box must be scaled down in strength if they were to behave like the huge masses of rock deformed by compression in the crust of the earth. Using plastic materials, and also by loading his artificial strata under a cover of loose lead shot, he made artificial “mountains” with folds that closely resembled those of the Appalachians. His report “The Mechanics of Appalachian Structure” (1893) brought Willis international fame, especially in Europe, where experimental geology was gaining in interest.

In 1915 Willis joined the Stanford University faculty as professor and chairman of the geology department. During his years as professor, and those after retiring at sixty-five, Willis’ geologic interests became more firmly entrenched in structural geology and seismology. His textbook Geologic Structures (1923) and more than seventy papers dealing with continental genesis, rift valleys, faults, and earthquakes were published during this period. So familiar did Willis become in many California towns on his search for knowledge about earthquakes, that he was known throughout the state as the “earthquake professor” , He tried to get California politicians to pass an enforceable building code outlawing the shoddy construction that had compounded damage during earthquakes. His rueful assessment of this effort was “I didn’t get the building code, but I certainly did increase earthquake insurance rates.”

Willis received his first honorary doctorate in 1910 from the University of Berlin for the Appalachian experiments and for his research in China. Later he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Belgium awarded him the Legion of Honor in 1936, and he won the Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America in 1944.


I. Original Works. A complete bibliography of Willis’ publications is in Bulletin of the Geological Societyof America,73 (1962), 68–72. Some of his better-known works are “Canyons and Glaciers. A Journey to the Ice Fields of Mount Tacoma,” in Northwest, 1, no. 2 (1883), repr. with slight modification, in E. S. Meany, Mount Rainier. A Record of Exploration (New York, 1916). 142–149; “Mount Tacoma in Washington Territory,” in Proceedings of the Newport Natural History Society,2 (1884), 13–21; “Conditions of Sedimentary Depositions,” in Journal of Geology,1 (1893), 476–520; “Conditions of Appalachian Faulting,” in American Journal of Science,46 (1893), 257–268, written with C. W. Hayes; “The Mechanics of Appalachian Structure,” in Report of the United States Geological Survey,13 , pt. 2 (1893), 211–281; “Some Coal Fields of Puget Sound,” ibid.,18 , pt. 3 (1898), 393–436; “A Symposium on the Classification and Nomenclature of Geologic Time-divisions,” in Journal of Geology,6 (1898), 345–347; “The Mount Rainier National Park,” in Forester,5 (1899), 97–102; “Individuals of Stratigraphic Classification,” in Journal of Geology, 9 (1901), 557–569; “Stratigraphy and Structure, Lewis and Livingston Ranges, Montana,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America,13 (1902), 305–352; “Physiography and Deformation of the Wenatchee-Chelan District, Cascade Range,” in Professional Papers. United States Geological Survey, no. 19 (1903), 41–97 : Carte geologique de l’Amerique du Nord, prepared for Congres Geologique Internationale, 10th session (Mexico, 1906) : and “Research in China,” in Publications. Carnegie Institution of Washington, no. 54 (1907), written with E. Blackwelder, R. H. Sargent, and F. Hirth.

Other works are Outline of Geologic History With Special Reference to North America (Chicago, 1910), written with R. D. Salisbury; “Index to the Stratigraphy of North America,” in Professional Papers. United States Geological Survey, no. 71 (1912) : Northern Patagonia (New York, 1914): “Discoidal Structure of the Lithosphere,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America,-31 (1920), 247–302; Fault Map of the State of California (1922), compiled with H. 0. Wood, from data assembled by the Seismological Society of America : Geologic Structures (New York, 1923); “Dead Sea Problem : Rift Valley or Ramp Valley?” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 39 (1928), 490- 542 : “Continental Genesis,” ibid., 40 (1929), 281 - 336 : “Af-rican Rift Valleys-a Geological Study,” in Carnegie Institution Washington News Service Bulletin, no. 2 (1930), 27–34 : Living Africa. A Geologist’s Wandering Through the Rift Valleys (New York, 1930) : “Isthmian Links,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America,43 (1932), 917–952 : “African Plateaus and Rift Valleys,” in Publications. Carnegie Institution of Washington, no. 470 (1936); “Asthenolith (Melting Spot) Theory.” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 49 (1938), 603–614 : “San Andreas Rift, California,” in Journal of Geology, 46 (1938), 1017- 1057 : “Eruptivity and Mountain Building,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 52 (1941), 1643 - 1683, written with Robin Willis : A Yanqui in Patagonia (Stanford, 1947); and Friendly China: Two Thousand Miles Afoot Among the Chinese (Stanford, 1949).

II. Secondary Literature. On Willis and his work, see E. Blackwelder, “Bailey Willis, 1857–1949,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences,35 (1961), 333–350; Philip B. King, “Bailey Willis,” in Dictionary of American Biography, supp. 4 (1974), 896–897: and Aaron C. Waters, “Memorial to Bailey Willis, 1857–1949,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America,73 (1962).

Aaron C. Waters

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Willis, Bailey." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 17 Mar. 2018 <>.

"Willis, Bailey." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (March 17, 2018).

"Willis, Bailey." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved March 17, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.