Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/February 1898/Sketch of Charles D. Walcott

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PSM V52 D450 Charles Doolittle Walcott.jpg


A "NEW YORK GEOLOGIST," whose name is not given, is quoted as having attributed Mr. Walcott's success largely to his having persistently followed one track. Acquiring a taste for geology when very young, it eventually became dominant, and more and more manifest to the world about him, till he secured a position in the United States Geological Survey. There he has risen, chiefly by the force of his ability and energy, to his present position of director of the survey.

His grandfather, Benjamin S. Walcott, moved from Rhode Island in 1822, and became one of the leading manufacturers of central New York; he had broad interests in educational matters, was the founder of a professorship at Hamilton College, and was well known as a philanthropist. His son, Charles Doolittle Walcott, was a man of unusual energy, was well established in business, and held an influential and leading place in the community. Dying at the early age of thirty-four, he left a wife and four children, the youngest, two years old, being the subject of this sketch.

Charles Doolittle Walcott was born at New York Mills, N. Y., March 31, 1850. His scholastic education was in the public schools of Utica, which he entered in 1858, and in the Utica Academy, which he left in 1868. He then entered a hardware store as a clerk and, continuing in such occupation two years, acquired a practical business training, which has proved of great value to him.

His scientific tastes were developed at the age of thirteen, when he became interested in collecting fossils and minerals. A few months afterward he met Colonel E. Jewett, geologist, paleontologist, and conchologist, from whom he borrowed books and received many suggestions, and through whose influence he became a student with method. Geological collecting and reading were continued during the remainder of his school life, and other scientific studies were also taken up. For two winters he devoted much time to optics and astronomy, and incidentally made large collections of insects and birds' eggs.

During the summer of 1867 a drift bowlder, accidentally broken by his buggy wheel, revealed to him fossil forms so different from those of the neighboring Trenton faunas that his interest was greatly excited, and in seeking to learn their origin and relations he was led to examine the literature of the pre-Silurian fossiliferous formations. He soon discovered that relatively little was known of them, and also that there was much confusion in the classification. It became his ambition to make a thorough investigation of all the pre-Trenton sedimentary formations and faunas in their geological relations, and in their relations to the development of life and the evolution of the North American continent, and this was later taken up as his life work in geology. His range of observation was also enlarged by excursions in Herkimer and Oneida Counties, where he met examples of Archaæn and Glacial as well as Palæozoic formations.

In 1871 business took him to Indianapolis, where his scientific tendencies were further stimulated by Prof. E. T. Cox, who was then making a geological survey of the Indiana coal fields. The time now arrived when it seemed necessary to choose between a business life and a life of research. A partnership was offered him on favorable terms, and if he accepted its responsibilities little time would remain for study and investigation. If, on the other hand, he devoted his life to science, it was important that he secure more time for its prosecution than was consistent with his present business engagements. Deciding in favor of scientific work, he left Indiana and returned to the collection and study of Trenton fossils in New York.

While a schoolboy he had spent summer vacations on a farm near Trenton Falls, a region of great geological interest and peculiarly attractive as a collecting ground. On determining to follow a scientific life he returned to Trenton Falls and established himself on the farm of William P. Rust, where he arranged to do a certain amount of farm work, reserving the remainder of his time for his chosen studies. Here he remained five years, gathering a rich collection of local fossils, beginning their systematic study, and enlarging his horizon by extensive excursions on foot during the spring and fall.

His paleontological collections included a unique series of Trenton limestone fossils, which was sold in 1873 to Prof. Louis Agassiz, and his intercourse with Professor Agassiz at that time was most helpful and stimulating. An arrangement was made for Mr. Walcott to go to Cambridge and pursue a course of study under the advice and direction of the great naturalist, but this was frustrated by the death of Agassiz.

In November, 1876, he received his first official appointment, becoming assistant to Prof. James Hall, State Geologist of New York. While holding that position researches were made in New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Canada. In July, 1879, Mr. Walcott was appointed field assistant in the United States Geological Survey, then under the direction of Clarence King, and was assigned to the study of the great geological section extending from the high plateaus of southern Utah to the bottom of the Grand Canon of the Colorado. In 1882 he collaborated with Mr. Hague in the survey of the Eureka mining district of Nevada. The Palæozoic paleontology of the survey was now assigned to him, and, though this entailed considerable routine work in the identification of fossils brought from many fields by the various geologists, he was enabled to pursue with vigor his cherished plans for the investigation of the older faunas. He examined the Cambrian formations of the Appalachian belt all the way from Alabama to Quebec, and carried his researches on a more easterly line through New England and New Brunswick to Newfoundland. He also began a series of western studies which eventually included the most important known bodies of Cambrian rocks in Texas, Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota. In 1888 he was advanced to be paleontologist in charge of invertebrate paleontology in the Geological Survey; in 1891, to be chief paleontologist; and in 1893, to be geologist in charge of geology and paleontology, in which capacity he had charge of the general direction of that branch of the work of the survey. In July, 1894, Major J. W. Powell, after fourteen years' service as director of the survey, retired from that office, and Mr. Walcott was selected by President Cleveland to succeed him.

Mr. Walcott's service to science falls under two heads—research and administration. The scientific study which results in positive additions to the world's knowledge has a somewhat definite course, beginning with the observation of phenomena, proceeding with their arrangement in classes, and concluding with hypothesis and theory as to their natural sequence or genesis. Classification and hypothesis afford new points of view which lead to additional observations, so that the various steps of the process are to a certain extent alternated; but the most successful researches, those whose results are of a permanent character, begin with a broad foundation of observation. The work that begins with theory and afterward seeks for verification through observation may be brilliant and attractive, but its results are rarely of lasting value. Mr. Walcott's scientific work has followed the normal and conservative course, beginning with the prolonged collection of specimens and other facts, following with generalization, chiefly in the field of the correlation of formations, and leaving largely to the future conclusions as to sequence and genesis.

His paleontological studies have been of two classes: biological, viewing fossil organisms as members of the animal kingdom, and stratigraphical, viewing associated fossils or faunas as the representatives of contemporaneous life and the labels of synchronous formations. His biological labors include the description of a considerable number of new families, genera, and species of Palæozoic invertebrates, and an elaborate study of the structure and organization of trilobites, which has served to give them, for the first time, a definite and unquestioned position in the systematic scheme of animal forms.

The trilobites were dominant forms in early Palæozoic time, and continued, with diminishing numbers and importance, until the Carboniferous period. Exhibiting a considerable range of differentiation, they have been of great service for the classification of terranes, and the nomenclature of the Cambrian horizons has been based upon them. Nevertheless, their systematic affinities were long in doubt, because they were known only through imperfect specimens, exhibiting the dorsal armor, but showing no trace of appendages for locomotion, respiration, etc. From time to time the discovery of legs and other members had been announced and subsequently disproved, and geologists had become so skeptical as to the possibility of their determination that when traces of a leg were actually discovered by E. Billings, in 1870, little credit was given to the announcement. Here was an important biological blank to be filled, and Mr. Walcott, at the suggestion of Louis Agassiz, undertook to fill it. The examination of thousands of trilobite specimens perfect as to the carapace revealed but a few traces of organs, and it was found that those traces all came from a certain layer of Trenton limestone only a few inches in thickness. That layer was carefully quarried over a considerable area, even though it became necessary to remove several feet of superjacent strata. Several thousand complete tests were obtained from it, and two hundred and seventy of these were found to contain some of the missing members in greater or less perfection.To such specimens elaborate study was given, chiefly by means of translucent thin sections, such as are employed by the petrographer. With their aid, and through prolonged labor and study, Mr. Walcott was enabled to restore and delineate all the more important organs, and thus make a satisfactory determination of the biological rank and position of the Trilobita.

In stratigraphical paleontology Mr. Walcott has thoroughly combined field studies of the strata with laboratory work on fossils. His most important local work has been on the so-called Grand Cañon section of Utah and Arizona, which exhibits an unusually complete rock series from Archæan to Tertiary, in the Eureka mining district of Nevada, and in the Taconic region of New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts. His work on the Cambrian formations of North America covered a wide geographical range, as already mentioned, and led to the systematic grouping of the Cambrian rocks in three chronological divisions, each characterized by a distinctive fauna. In 1888 he visited Wales for the purpose of making a personal study of the type district of the Cambrian system—the district rendered classic by the original labors of Sedgwick and the subsequent researches of Hicks.

Mr. Walcott's work of scientific administration began in 1891, when he was given supervision of all the paleontological work of the Geological Survey, and has been progressively enlarged to the present time. When called to the directorship of the survey in 1894, he took charge of a body of scientific work already well organized, and continued a policy of administration which for several years he had been instrumental in shaping. He had no important changes to institute which had not been contemplated by his predecessor in office, and his ability to develop and strengthen the organization depended largely on the confidence he was able to inspire in those members of the legislative branch of the Government who determine the amount and general purpose of appropriations. Between 1879 and 1894, while the survey was under the direction of Mr. Clarence King and Major J. W. Powell, the amount assigned by Congress to its work had been gradually enlarged from $106,000 to $459,640, and the great body of geological work thus rendered possible had so stimulated State and individual activity as to give American geology a new and unprecedented status. Not only did the publications of the survey constitute a library in themselves, but the valuable material which became available for unofficial publication led to the institution of two journals devoted wholly to geology, and the organization of a geological society publishing annually a large volume of Transactions. It was therefore a matter of great importance, alike to the science of geology and to the great economic interests involved in its development, that the man chosen to succeed Major Powell should command the respect and confidence of the people and their representatives, so that the national work which had proved so fruitful and stimulating might be continued and enlarged. The event has proved the wisdom of President Cleveland's selection, for each successive Congress has increased the appropriation and enlarged the function of the survey.

A comparison of the appropriations for the current fiscal year with those made for the fiscal year 1894, just preceding Mr. Walcott's accession to the directorship, shows enlargement in many directions. The various items providing for the geological work proper, and the work in paleontology, chemistry, statistics, etc., show an increase of $22,000, besides an item of $50,000 for hydrography, which was not separately recognized in the earlier bill, although the work had then been initiated.

The body of work to which the title of hydrography is applied consists in the determination of existing water supply, both in streams and underground, and in the discussion of the economic availability of this supply for agricultural, municipal, and other uses. The importance of such work to agriculture and sanitation, and the need of investigation under national auspices, have been recognized for some years, but there has been doubt as to the particular bureau to which the research should be intrusted, and the responsibility has been shared at various times by the Geological Survey and the Department of Agriculture. It is now lodged wholly with the Geological Survey.

From the year of its organization the Geological Survey has performed a large amount of topographical work, making maps on which are shown not only roads, towns, streams, etc., but the shape of the surface. For a much longer period the United States Land Office has been engaged in surveys for the purpose of dividing the public land into townships, sections, and minor cadastral divisions, as a basis for transfer to individual settlers. The two works have to a considerable extent covered the same areas, but the purposes and methods of work were so different that for a long time it did not seem practicable to unite them. Recently, however, an extensive experiment has been made in that direction. The bills appropriating money for the land surveys have been so phrased as to permit the Secretary of the Interior to have part of the work done by the Geological Survey, and the experience of three years, involving the expenditure through the survey of about $400,000, has shown that by using the administrative methods of the Geological Survey the two works can be carried on conjointly with less cost than was formerly found necessary for the cadastral surveys by the Land Office alone. For the present fiscal year the sum of money thus assigned to Mr. Walcott's direction is $241,500.

Long agitation with reference to the waste of timber on the public domain, and the danger of a timber famine in the future, have led to the institution of a number of forest reservations, and in the last year of his administration President Cleveland established, by proclamation, thirteen additional reservations. Under existing laws a vast body of land included in these reservations could not be utilized for agriculture or town sites, and the exclusion of settlers from so great a domain led to vigorous protest. The situation involved considerable strain, and there was danger that the attempt to protect the forests would fail; but a compromise was finally arranged, under the terms of which the Geological Survey was instructed to map the reservations, marking upon them the areas actually forested, and also the areas available for agriculture. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars were appropriated for this work, and another important duty was thus imposed on the survey.

The survey is also charged this year with the running of the northern part of the boundary line between Idaho and Montana.

Thus in four years three new functions have been given to the Geological Survey, and the sum of money intrusted to Mr. Walcott's administrative care has been enlarged from $484,640 to $967,840, an increase of more than one hundred per cent.

The individual who demonstrates high administrative quality by success in any one field is sure to find opportunity for its exercise in other fields, and Mr. Walcott has been no exception.

The death of Dr. G. Brown Goode, in the fall of 1896, had made vacant the office of assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and director of the United States National Museum. The position is one that requires a rare combination of qualities. For this reason, and on account of the intrusion of outside issues into the matter, the secretary of the institution found the selection of a person to fill it difficult. It was offered to Mr. Walcott, but he declined to leave the Geological Survey. He finally consented to take the place temporarily, with the understanding that his duties should be confined exclusively to the charge of the museum; and this proposition being accepted by the Board of Regents, he now holds the position of acting assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in charge of the National Museum.

Mr. Walcott is one of the younger members of the National Academy of Sciences, to which he was elected in 1895. In the same year the Bigsbee medal of the Geological Society of London was given him in recognition of his distinguished work as paleontologist and stratigraphical geologist. This medal is awarded biennially "as a recognition of eminent services in any department of geology, irrespective of the receiver's country," and Mr. Walcott was the fourth American to receive it.