Josiah Dwight Whitney

The American chemist and geologist Josiah Dwight Whitney (1819-1896) was instrumental in placing mining geology on a firm scientific basis.

Josiah Dwight Whitney was born in Northampton, Mass., on Nov. 23, 1819, the son of a local banker. After graduating from Yale in 1839, he studied chemistry with Robert Hare in Philadelphia. In 1840 Whitney joined Charles T. Jackson as an unpaid assistant in the geological survey of New Hampshire. Whitney studied chemistry and geology with some of the leading scientists of France and Germany from 1842 to 1847.

In 1847 Jackson engaged Whitney to assist in a survey of the mineral lands of the upper peninsula of Michigan. Then followed a period as a consulting expert in mining, and during this time he compiled the information that appeared in his book Metallic Wealth of the United States (1854), which remained the standard reference for nearly two decades. Also in 1854, he married Louisa Goddard Howe of Brookline, Mass. In 1860 he was appointed state geologist of California, where he began an elaborate survey that was to include paleontology, zoology, and botany as well as the conventional mineral survey. The work progressed smoothly at first, but by 1868 legislators, becoming impatient with his scholarly ideals and his failure to produce quick results, suspended his activities. Although he remained in office until 1874, the work was not resumed, and the final reports were published at Whitney's own expense.

In 1865 Whitney had been appointed to the Harvard faculty to found a school of mines and had been granted an indefinite leave of absence to carry on the work of the California survey. In 1868 he returned to Cambridge to open the school, and the following year he took a party of his students to do fieldwork in Colorado. With the definite suspension of the survey in 1874, Whitney took up permanent residence in Cambridge and resumed his professorship, which he held for the rest of his life.

Whitney's second great work, Climatic Changes of Later Geological Times (1882), was based on his western experiences. Although it was an important contribution to the subject at the time of publication, many of his conclusions have since been modified or overturned. Whitney also wrote the articles on America for the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and prepared a revised version for separate publication in two volumes: The United States: Facts and Figures Illustrating the Physical Geography of the Country and Its Material Resources (1889). Equally important for the development of the profession was his preparation for The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia of the terms in the fields of mining, metal and metallurgy, geology, lithology, physical geography, and fossil botany.

Whitney was a member of the American Philosophical Society and a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences; he was the fourth American to be elected a foreign member of the Geological Society of London. He died on Sept. 25, 1896.


Further Reading on Josiah Dwight Whitney

The source for Whitney's life is Edwin T. Brewster, Life and Letters of Josiah Dwight Whitney (1909). For background see George P. Merrill, The First One Hundred Years of American Geology (1924).