Josiah Whitney

Infobox Scientist
name = Josiah Whitney
box_width =

image_size =200px
caption =Portrait of Josiah Whitney by Silas Selleck, 1863
birth_date = November 23, 1819
birth_place = Northampton, Massachusetts
death_date = August 15, 1896
death_place =
residence = |citizenship =
nationality = United States
ethnicity =
field = geology
work_institutions = Harvard University California Geological Survey
alma_mater =
doctoral_advisor =
doctoral_students =
known_for =
author_abbrev_bot =|author_abbrev_zoo =
influences =
influenced =
prizes =
religion = |footnotes = |

Josiah Dwight Whitney (November 23, 1819 – August 15, 1896) was an American geologist, professor of geology at Harvard University (from 1865), and chief of the California Geological Survey (1860–1874).

Early years

Whitney was born in Northampton, Massachusetts, the oldest of thirteen children. He was educated at a series of schools in Northampton, Plainfield, Round Hill, New Haven and Andover. In 1836 he entered Yale University where he studied chemistry, mineralogy and astronomy. After graduation in 1839 he continued to study chemistry in Philadelphia and in 1840 he joined a geologic survey of New Hampshire as an unpaid assistant to Charles T. Jackson

In 1841 he was preparing to enter Harvard Law School when he happened to hear a lecture on geology by Charles Lyell. He decided to change career plans and sailed to Europe in 1842 to continue his studies in science. For the next five years he traveled through Europe and studied chemistry and geology in France and Germany.

When Whitney returned home in 1847 he and John Wells Foster were hired to assist Charles T. Jackson in making a federal survey of the Lake Superior land district of northern Michigan, which was about to become a major copper and iron mining region. When Jackson was dismissed from the survey, Foster and Whitney completed it in 1850 and the final report was published under their names. Building on this experience Whitney became a mining consultant and eventually wrote the book, "Metallic Wealth of the United States" (1854). It was considered to be the standard reference for the next 15 years. During the 1850s Whitney participated in geological surveys of Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

California Geological Survey

In 1860 he was appointed the state geologist for California and was instructed by the legislature to undertake a comprehensive geologic survey of the state. To carry out the California Geological Survey, he organized an eminent, multi-disciplinary team, including William H. Brewer, James Graham Cooper, William More Gabb, Charles F. Hoffmann, and Clarence King. They began a survey that covered not only geology and geography, but also botany, zoology, and paleontology. Although significant progress was made, Whitney made a tactical error by first publishing two volumes on paleontology when the legislators were clamoring for information about gold. Whitney argued that the survey should do more than simply serve as a prospecting party. The legislature grew impatient with the scope and pace of the survey work and slowly cut the budget. Whitney tactlessly complained, telling legislators, "We have escaped perils by flood and field, have evaded the friendly embrace of the grizzly, and now find ourselves in the jaws of the Legislature." In 1867 the survey was eliminated from the budget, and work was suspended in 1868.

Although the California Geological Survey ceased work when funds were eliminated, Whitney managed to retain the title of state geologist until 1874. The survey's field work never resumed. In fact, California was left without a geological agency until 1880 when the legislature created the State Mining Bureau. The legislature, after their experience with Whitney, empowered to address only mining issues and set up a board of trustees to keep the new agency focused on that narrow purpose. One or two bureau chiefs tried to broaden the scope to include geology but the bureau was not allowed to hire a geologist until 1928, six decades after the old survey's demise.

The state funded publication and printing of the first three volumes of the survey's results, and Whitney published the remaining reports using his own money. In spite of financial difficulties and political problems, the survey was significant not only for its published results but also because of the men involved and the survey methods developed – in particular, topographical mapping by triangulation.

Whitney also wrote "The Yosemite Book" (1869), which was essentially a travel guide to Yosemite Valley and the surrounding area. In this work he advocated the protection of Yosemite and was one of the first to propose creation of a national park.

While in California, Whitney became embroiled in two notable controversies. First, Whitney maintained that Yosemite Valley was created by a cataclysmic sinking of the valley floor. However, John Muir, who was exploring the Yosemite area during the same time, argued that the valley was carved by glacial action. Whitney derided Muir as an “ignoramus” and a “mere sheepherder.” Whitney's survey reports suppressed evidence of glaciers, and he never abandoned his viewpoint. Most scientists eventually dismissed Whitney's hypothesis and accepted Muir’s.

The second controversy involved the discovery of the Calaveras Skull, allegedly uncovered by a miner 130 feet beneath the surface of the earth. Eventually the skull made its way into the possession of Whitney who quickly pronounced it genuine and concluded that it came from the Pliocene era (5.3 mya – 1.8 mya). For a variety of reasons, it is now widely accepted that the Calaveras Skull was a hoax; radiocarbon dating puts its age at about 1,000 years.

Later life

In 1865 Whitney was appointed to the Harvard faculty in order to found a school of mines. He was allowed an indefinite leave of absence to complete his work in California. When the survey work was definitively ended in 1874, Whitney returned to Harvard and opened the school of mines which was quickly merged a year later into the Lawrence Scientific School. He held his position as professor of geology for the rest of his life.

Josiah Whitney died at Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, on August 18, 1896.

Other facts

Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States, and the first confirmed glacier in the United States, on Mount Shasta, were both named after him by members of the Survey.

He was the brother of grammarian and lexicographer William Dwight Whitney.

elected Works

* with J. W. Foster, "Report on the Geology of the Lake superior Land District" (1851–52)
* "The Mineral Wealth of the United States" (1854)
* with James Hall, "Geological Report on Ohio" (1858)
* "A Report on the Upper Mississippi Land Region" (1862)
* "The Geological Survey of California" (1864–70)
* [ "The Yosemite Book" (1869)] . Later reprinted without photographs as "The Yosemite Guide-Book"
*"Auriferous Gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California" (1880)
*"Climatic Changes of Late Geological Times" (1882)


*Dictionary of American Biography (Volume X), Dumas Malone, (1946)
*Encyclopedia of World Biography, Suzanne Michele Bourgoin, ed. (1998)
*A History of the First Half-Century of the National Academy of Sciences: 1863–1913 (1913)
*History of the Sierra Nevada, Francis P. Farquhar, (1965)

External links

* [ The Yosemite Book]

Further reading

*"Life and Letters of Josiah Dwight Whitney, Edwin T. Brewster", (1909)
*"The First One Hundred Years of American Geology", George P. Merrill, (1924)

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Josiah Whitney — Josiah Dwight Whitney (1863) Nacimiento 23 de noviembre de 1819 Northampton …   Wikipedia Español

  • Whitney (surname) — Whitney is an Old English surname that derives from the location of Whitney in Herefordshire, England. It was first mentioned in the Domesday Book with the spelling Witenie. The most plausible meaning for the name is White Water , from the Anglo… …   Wikipedia

  • Whitney's Regiment of Militia — Infobox Military Unit unit name=Whitney s Regiment of Militia caption= country= allegiance=State of Massachusetts type=Infantry branch= dates=1777 specialization= command structure=Massachusetts militia size= current commander= garrison=… …   Wikipedia

  • Whitney [2] — Whitney (spr. ŭittnĭ), 1) Josiah Dwight, Geolog. geb. 23. Nov. 1819 in Northampton in Massachusetts, gest. 19. Aug. 1896 bei New London (New Hampshire), studierte am Yale College, wurde 1840 Mitglied der geologischen Landesvermessung von New… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Whitney [2] — Whitney (spr. wittnĕ), Josiah Dwight, Geolog, geb. 23. Nov. 1819 zu Northampton (Massachusetts), 1860 74 Staatsgeolog von Kalifornien, seit 1875 Prof. am Harvard College, gest. 19. Aug. 1896 bei New London (Neuhampshire); veröffentlichte:… …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • Josiah McElheny — Infobox Artist bgcolour = #6495ED name = Josiah McElheny imagesize = caption = birthname = birthdate = 1966 location = Boston, MA deathdate = deathplace = nationality = American field = Glass art training = movement = works = patrons = influenced …   Wikipedia

  • Whitney — /hwit nee, wit /, n. 1. Eli, 1765 1825, U.S. manufacturer and inventor. 2. John Hay, 1904 82, U.S. diplomat and newspaper publisher. 3. Josiah Dwight, 1819 96, U.S. geologist. 4. William Dwight, 1827 94, U.S. philologist and lexicographer… …   Universalium

  • Whitney, Mount — Peak in the Sierra Nevada, southeast central California, U.S. Located in Sequoia National Park, it is 14,494 ft (4,418 m) high, the highest point in the continental U.S. outside of Alaska. It was first climbed in 1873. * * * ▪ mountain,… …   Universalium

  • Whitney — I. biographical name Eli 1765 1825 American inventor II. biographical name Josiah Dwight 1819 1896 American geologist III. biographical name William Dwight 1827 1894 brother of J.D. American philologist …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • William Dwight Whitney — (1827–1894) was an American linguist, philologist, and lexicographer who edited The Century Dictionary. Contents 1 …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.