Winchell was the son of Horace and Caroline McAllister Winchell, both of whom were school-teachers. After graduation from Wesleyan University in 1847, he was appointed teacher of natural science at Pennington Male Seminary in New Jersey, where he studied the local flora and languages, and conducted experiments with electricity. Subsequent teaching positions were Amenia Seminary (New York), Newbern Academy (Alabama), and Mesopotamia Female Seminary(Eutow, Alabama). Winchell was president of Masonic University (Selma, Alabama)and was professor at the University of Michigan, first of physics and engineering (1853–1855), and later, when a chair was established, of geology, zoology, and botany (1855–1873). During his tenure at the University of Michigan he served on the State Geological Survey (1859–1861, 1869–1871). While chancellor and then professor of geology at Syracuse University(1873–1874), Winchell accepted a professorship in geology, zoology, and botany at Vanderbilt University. The latter chair was abolished in 1878, allegedly for economic reasons; it is believed, however, that the action was taken by the university board of trust because of his views on evolution. In 1879 he was recalled to the University of Michigan as professor of geology and paleontology, and remained there until his death.
Winchell’s main impact was his role in organizing geology as a science in America. By popularizing its principles as having both economic and cultural value, he influenced legislation establishing geological surveys. In addition to his teaching, lecturing, and voluminous writing, he made important scientific observations in a great many fields, mainly stratigraphy and paleontology. He described seven new general and 304 new species of organisms, mostly fossil. Winchell established the basin shape of the strata in Michigan and predicted the economic development of salt in the Saginaw Valley. Much effort went into the description of a series of strata called the Marshall group that encompassed many previously described beds and required a strong defense. He was particularly interested in the oil-bearing formation of Michigan and the ancient (Archean) rocks of Minnesota. Other geological work included studies on glaciation, pedology, geochronology, hydrology, and sedimentology.
Winchell’s second major contribution was in bridging the alleged gap between science and religion. He defended the Christian Scriptures and sought rational interpretations that harmonized with scientific observations. He revived the seventeenth-century idea of preadamites and of preadamites and presented an anthropological account of the evolution of the human family without, in his view, contravening the Scriptures. Winchell’s greatest endeavor resulted in a highly imaginative world history that brought together cosmology and geology. His published bibliography lists 255 titles, but his personal list of compositions numbers 566. Other scientific subjects to which he contribute included astronomy, climatology, meteorology,and zoology.
Winchell’s brother Newton Horace described him as a man of strong personality and convictions, physically strong, and deft in mechanical construction. Audiences were inspired and entertained by his popular scientific lectures. He wrote poetry, mostly unpublished, and mastered at least seven languages. Winchell has been called the father of the Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, of which he was president in 1891, and was one of the founders of American Geologist (1888). He married Julia F. Lines of Utica, New York, a teacher of instrumental music, on 5 December 1849. Of their six children only two daughters lived to maturity.
Winchell’s writings on geology are First Biennial Report of the Progress of the Geological Survey of Michigan, Embracing Observations on the Geology, Zoology, and Botany of the Lower Peninsula (Lansing, 1861); “On the Saliferous Rocks and Salt Springs of Michigan,” in American Journal of Science, 2nd ser.,34 (1862), 307–311; “Description of Fossils From the Marshall and Huron Groups of Michigan,” in Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,14 (1862), 405–430; The Oil Region of Michigan. Description of the Baker Tract, Situated in the Heart of the Oil Region of Michigan (Detroit, 1864); The Grand Traverse Region. A Report on the Geological and Industrial Resources of the Counties of Antrim, Grand Traverse, Benzie, and Leelanaw, in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan (Ann Arbor, 1866); “On the Geological Age and Equivalents of the Marshall Group,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society,11 (1871), 245–260; Geological Studies, or Elements of Geology (Chicago, 1886): “The Taconic Question,” in American Geologist,1 (1888), 347–363; and “American Opinion on the Older Rocks.” in Report of the Minnesota Geological Survey.18 (1891), 65–226.
His works on evolution are Sketches of Creation (New York, 1870); The Doctrine of Evolution (New York, 1874); Reconciliation of Science and Religion (New York, 1877); Preadamites (Chicago, 1880); Sparks From a Geologist’s Hammer (Chicago, 1881);and World Life or Comparative Geology (Chicago, 1883).