Wright, George Frederick

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(b. Whitehall, New York, 22 January 1838; d. Oberlin, Ohio, 20 April 1921)


Wright was the fifth of the six children of Walter Wright, a farmer, and Mary Peabody Colburn. The attraction of the Wright family to the New School Calvinism, with its emphasis on personal regeneration and humanitarian reform, led Walter Wright to send five of his children ot Oberlin College. The election of Charles Grandison Finney, on eof the leaders of the New School movement, to the presidency of the college in 1851 was a ssign to the Wrights that Oberlin was sound. After preparation at Castleton Academy in Vermont, Wright entered Oberlin in 1855. After receiving the B.A. degree in 1859, he entered the Oberlin Theological Seminary. Although his studies were interrupted by Civil War service, Wright recived the M.A. in 1862. Just after graduation he married Huldah Maria Day and took her to Bakersfield, Vermont, wher ehe became pastor of the Congregational church. In 1872 he moved to Andover, Massachu setts, where he began a nien–year ministry in the free (Congregational) Church. In 1904, five years after the death of his first wife, who had borne him four children, Wright married Florence Eleaneor Bedford.

Wright’s interest in geology began during his childhood and gradually transformed form avocation to profession. He was an avid reader; and before he was twelve, he had gone through John C. Freémont’s Report of his Rocky mountain expedition. Oberlin’s classical education furnished Wright with more than a smattering of science courses. In each winter of his college years he taught at a district school, a task that allowed him to travel through various parts of Ohio searching for fossils and collecting rock specimens. At Bakersfield, Wright read Lyell’s Antiquity of Man and Darwin’s Origin of Species. He explored portions of the Green Mountains and became an authority on the effects of glaciation in the locality. His friend administrator of the New Hampshire Geological Survey, brought wright’s work to the attention of a number of naturalists.

While he was at Andover, Wright worked closely with several Harvard scientists. It was his insistence that persuaded Asa Gray to publish Darwiniana (1876). Receptive to Darwin’s views, Wright was the foremost early champion of a Charistian Darwinist theology. His initial religious and scientific interests in the problem of the antiquity of man continued ot stimulate his geological research for the rest of his life. His theory was that andover’s “Indian Ridge” was a glacial rather than marine origin, and in 1875 he demonstrated that the formation was one of a series of prominent eskers in New England. Clarence King, who soon became first director of the United States, Geological Survey, gave Wright’s conclusions an endorsement that brought his published work to the attention of James Dwight Dana, William M.Davis, and other gelogists, with whom Wright continued to be associated.

In 1880 Wright and Clarence King noted the existence of a glacial boundary south of the Massachusetts shorelline; and with Henry C.Lewis, and Peter Lesley, Wright followed the line of morainic deposits through New Jersey. In 1881 he worked with Lewis as an assistant on the School Geological Survey of Pennsylvania, under Lesley’s direction. Late in that year Wright accepted a professorship at Obeerlin, where he taught courses in theology and glacial geology for the next twenty–seven years, in 1892 becoming professor of the harmony of science and revelation. Soon he had identified the drift margin in Ohio, and as an assistant on the United States, Geological Survey (1884–1892) completed the work through Indiana and Illinois. Thus he had personally traced the drift margin from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River.

In the summer of 1886 Wright conducted a series of pioneer investigations at Glacier, Bay, Alaska. A result of his extensive glacial investigations in North America was an invitation to lecture before the Lowell Institute in Boston in the winter of 1887–1888. The revised lectures were published in 1889 as The Ice Age in North America and Its Bearings Upon the Antiquity of Man. He was twice again a Lowell lecture: in 1891–1892 and in with 1896–1987.

In the last three decades of his life, Wright’s scientific work consisted mostly of explanations and refinements of his earlier conclusions. He investigated Greenland glaciation in 1894, and between 1892 and 1908 he visited Europe four times to observe effects of the Pleistocene there. Although he retired from teaching in 1907, he remained a tireless worker. From 1883 until his death he was editor of Bibliotheca sacra, a major theological quarterly. He also aided his son, Frederick Bennett, Wright, in the publication of the thirteen volumes of Records of the Past, a journal of archaeology. Wright was instrumental in the crusade to preserve the nation’s prehistoric earthworks.

Wright brought amazing energy to his work. Dedicated to the necessity for firsthand observation, he realized a long–held ambition in 1900, when he went to China to begin an arduous journey through Manchuria and Siberia. Traveling by mule, river steamer, train, and even hundreds of miles by horse–drawn cart, he recorded observations of elevated shorelines, loess, deposits and other consequences of Pleistocene action from Vladivostok to the Black Sea.

Wright was a founder of the Geological Society of America and was active in many other organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Boston Society of Natural History the Essex Institute of Salem, the American Anthropological Association, and the Arctic Club. He was president of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society from 1907 to 1918. In 1887 Wright received two honorary degrees: the D.D. from Brown University and the LL.D. from Drury College, Springfield, Missouri.

Wright belonged to a generation of American geologists whose endeavors laid the basis for modern glacial theory. He was the most vigorous proponent of several hypotheses that glaciologists debated, sometimes heatedly. On the basis of his work at the Niagara gorge and elsewhere. Wright advocated the relatively late end of the Ice Age, approximately ten thousand years ago. Further, he contended that there had been only one Ice Age. According to Wright, the Ice Age did not consist of alternating periods during which much of the northern hemisphere was covered by glaciers, and intermittent periods in which there was no extraordinary glaciation–the multiple glaciation theory, which set the duration of the Ice Age at far over one hundred thousand years. Rather, he espoused a unitary theory; the Ice Age, he believed, consisted of the alternate ebbing and flowing of glaciers over a period of time not to exceed ninety thousand years. Wright conceded the existence of certain interglacial deposits, but argued that these represented merely local recessions, not distinct interglacial periods.

The most controversial of Wright’s positions was his unqualified affirmation of the existence of man in North America during the Pleistocene. Thomas C. Chamberlin, W. J. McGee, and John W. Powell opposed him, thus setting off a heated debate that involved some of the major scientific societies and periodicals, the departments of geology of the University of Chicago and other schools, and the United States Geological Survey for over two years. The spark was the publication of Wright’s Man and the Glacial Period (1892), a careful description of alleged evidences of glacial man. Wright’s side was supported in whole or in part by Warren Upham, Newton H. and Alexander Winchell, Nathaniel S. Shaler, Frederic W. Putnam, James D. Dana, and other naturalists; but it was a later generation that achieved a fuller appreciation of his efforts to establish the relatively short period since the end of the Ice Age, and to substantiate the existence of Pleistocene man in North America.


I. Original Works. Among Wright’s 16 books and almost 600 articles not cited in the text are “Some Remarkable Gravel Ridges in the Merrimack Valley,” in Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History,19 (1877), 47–63; “The Glacial Phenomena of North America and Their Realtion to the Question of Man’s Antiquity in the valley of the Delaware,” in Bulletin of the Essex Institute,13 (1881), 65–72; “Recent Investigations Concerning the Southern Boundary of the Glaciated Area of Ohio,” in American Journal of science,3rd ser., 26 (1883), 44–56l “The Niagara river and the Glacial period,” ibid28 (1884), 32–35; “The Terminal Moraine ain Ohio Kentucky, and Indiana,” in Pennsylvania and Western New York Second feological Survey of Pennsylvania, Vol. Z (Harriburg, Pa., 1884), 203–243; “The Muir glacier,” in Amiercan Journal of Science 3rd ser., 33 (1887), 1–18; “The glasicial Bountary in Western Pemmsylvania, Ohio, Kentuckym Indiana, and lllinots,” Bulletin of the United States Geological survge No. 58 (1890) “perhistoric Man on the Pactic Coast,” in Atlantioc Monthly67 (1891), 501–513; “Elxctement Over Glacial Theoies,” in Science 20, 1892), 360–361; “Ubnity of hte Glacial Epoch. in American Journal of science 3rd ser., 44 (1892) 351–373; “Continuity of hte glacial perio,” ibid47 (1894), 161–187; and Green land lcefields and life in the Norhth Atlatic with a New Dsiscussion of the Cause og the Ice Age (New York 1896), written with Warren Upham.

Other works are “Recent Geological Changes in Northern and central Asia,” in Quarterly Journal of the Geological Socity of London57 (1901), 244–250; Evidence of hte Agency ot water in the Distributaion of hte Loess in the Missouri Valley,” in American geologist.3 (1904) 205–222’; “Postgalacial erosion and Oxidation,” in BUlletin of the geological Society of Ameica23 (1912) 277–296; Origan and antiquity of Man (Oberlin. Ohio, 1912) and story of my life and work (Onerlin Ohio, 1916) The 5th ed. (1911) of Ice Age in Norht America was as complete revision.

II. Secondray Literature. See “George Frederick wright; in Society Quarterly30 (1921), 162–175 and Warren Upham, “Memorial of George Fregerick weritht,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America33 (1922), 14–30. for an investigation of wright’s work with Gray aee Michael McGiffert, “Georage Frederick Wright 1874–1881” (ph. D. diss., Yale Unicversity 1958). The most extensive study of wright; In Defence of Darwinsm and Fundamentalism 1838–1921;” (ph. D. diss. Vanderbilt University 1971), which is basedon wright’s correnpondence and other papers (some 15,000 itmes) in the Oberlin college Archeives.

William J. Morison

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