A Brief History Of Geology At Rutgers, 1830-1980

by Richard Olsson (Professor and Chair Emeritus)

Geology was first taught at Rutgers when Lewis C. Beck was appointed professor and head of the department of chemistry and natural science at Rutgers College in 1830. He also worked as a mineralogist for the New York Geological Survey. Beck was succeeded by George H. Cook as head of the department in 1853 and served as head until his death in 1889.

Agriculture was added to his title in 1867, as he became professor of chemistry, natural history, and agriculture. In 1882 his title was changed to professor of geology and agriculture. Besides teaching mineralogy and geology he was instrumental in promoting geology, the construction of Geological Hall in 1872, and in establishing an agriculture school in New Jersey. He became the first director of the Agriculture Experiment Station and was a vice-president of Rutgers College for 25 years. And you guessed it Cook College is named after him. He also served as State Geologist from 1864 to 1889. Rutgers association with the State Geological Survey continued with the State Geologist Henry B. Kummel who lectured at Rutgers from 1906 to 1934.

Albert H. Chester (1891-1903) succeeded Cook was followed Joseph V. Lewis (1903-1927). Lewis is noted for his work on the Palisades diabase. Up until this point activity was centered on the museum that still stands in Geological Hall, housing and displaying the vast mineral and rock collections accumulated by Beck, Cook, Chester, and Lewis. Geology began to take its present form under Albert O. Hayes who is noted for his work on the Wabana Iron Ores of Newfoundland. Under his leadership as head of the Department of Geology from 1928 to 1945, faculty and courses were expanded. The first B.S. in Geology was granted in 1931, the first M.S. in 1939, and the first Ph.D. in 1938. Full time members of the department during Hayes' tenure included Albert S. Wilkerson, mineralogy (1939-1963), Helgi Johnson, stratigraphy and paleontology (1951-1970, Chairman 1945-1961); Peter E. Wolfe, geomorphology (1945-1981); James H.C. Martens, sedimentology (1947-1966, Chairman 1961-1966); Steven K. Fox, micropaleontology and stratigraphy (1948-1981), and Bennett L. Smith, structural geology (1951-1974). Thomas Vogel (1963-1970) filled the position vacated by the retirement of Wilkerson. He left to join the faculty at Michigan State University. The department was small and most faculty members taught a wide range of courses; research was more casual. The department was primarily a teaching department. A Bureau of Mineral Research was established in 1945 to assist New Jersey mineral industries in research but it had limited success due to scant funding and was terminated in the early 1980's. Richard K. Olsson joined the faculty in 1957 with a speciality in micropaleontology and biostratigraphy.

Raymond C. Murray, a carbonate sedimentogist, was appointed chairman of the department in 1967. In 1968 the Annual Museum Open House was established. In 1977 Murray left for another position at the University of Montana. In his last year the department moved from Geological Hall on Queens Campus to renovated quarters in Wright Laboratories on Busch Campus and this completed the move of Rutgers College science departments across the Raritan River to Busch. On the recommendation of an external review committee Murray hired 4 new faculty members; Michael J. Carr in 1974 in volcanology, Martha Hamil in 1974 in structural geology, Mark Houston in 1974 in marine geophysics, and Allen Tampuri in 1974 in environmental geology. Roger H. Hewins with a specialty in meteoritics replaced Tampuri in 1975. Gail M. Ashley filled the vacant sedimentology position in 1977 and Eric Christofferson was hired in 1975 in marine geophysics to replace Houston who left after one year. After Murray left Dick Olsson took over the chair position, a term which lasted until 1996. The department was renamed the Department of Geological Sciences. George H. McGhee came in 1978 to fill a new position in paleontology. Claude Herzberg joined the department in 1980 in petrology and Randall Forsythe was hired in 1980 to take over the position vacated by Hamil and Mark D. Feigenson filled a new position in geochemistry in 1981. Robert E. Sheridan replaced Christofferson in 1980 in marine geophysics. John J. Flynn came in 1982 to fill the position in stratigraphy vacated by the retirement of Fox and was succeeded by Kenneth G. Miller in 1988 when Flynn went to the Field Museum in Chicago.

By now the department had grown to 10 full-time faculty members, still a small department, but active faculty research had blossomed. With the addition of Roy Schlische in 1986 in structural geology to replace Forsythe the geology faculty became stabilized. It is important to note that Rutgers University undertook a major reorganization in 1980 that created a single faculty of Arts and Sciences and unified the many separate discipline departments that had existed as separate entities in Rutgers, Douglas, Livingston, and University Colleges. The remarkable growth of the department in the late 1990,s and 2000's is the subject for a future article from those directly involved in it. Now some highlights on the faculty who anchored the department in the 50's, 60's, and 70's.

Foremost is Steve Fox who embodied the students. Steve had a remarkable personality that put students at ease and encouraged them in their studies and even counseled them in times of difficulty. Steve was famous for his stratigraphy and paleontology field trips. Fridays were field trip days most of the year. Students in those days saw the best of New Jersey's geology because of the numerous pit operations, interstate highway construction, and stream bank exposures. Steve knew where they all were, but unfortunately most sites are now unavailable. A stop at one of the local pubs at the end of the day was a highlight. Steve knew where they all were too. Steve was an important figure at the annual spring picnics at the Log Cabin. Who can forget Steve in the kitchen cooking fresh corn? The Steven K. Fox fund was set up to honor Steve in the support of students taking a summer field course.

Al Wilkerson taught a rigorous course in optical mineralogy. He was a no nonsense guy who demanded his students master the workings of the petrographic microscope. Who can forget his exam questions which seemed to always start with 8:00 am, leaving late students running after the bus, which did not stop to pick them up. His most famous trip was the one scheduled the day a major hurricane was coming up the Atlantic coast. Peter had his teaching assistants run this trip, which he refused to cancel. Fortunately, the bus driver was forced to turn around a few miles down the road, which saved the day. Peter's best and most famous field trips were the geomorphology trips to see the spectacular glaciated landscapes of the northeast U.S. and Canada.

Helgi Johnson, an Islander, was perhaps the most colorful of the geology faculty. He was short in stature, about 5'2" tall. When he was chair he insisted on having a parking space next to Geological Hall in which he parked his large four-door white Cadillac. He was the only faculty who parked next to the president and vice-presidents whose offices were in adjacent Old Queens. He kept this parking slot until he retired. Because of this he got the nickname "little napoleon:". He was a sight-to-see when he walked into Geology Hall to teach a geology-in-service course to high school teachers in Bermuda shorts and socks up to his knobby knees. The schoolteachers were delighted to see a college professor put them at ease in what must have been, at first, rather intimidating to be sitting again in a college classroom.

Jim Martens was admired for identifying any mineral one could throw at him. He was known for his rapid counting of heavy minerals, which was the thing to do in those days. He was always at the Geology Museum Open House identifying minerals for collectors bringing in specimens. He did more than give a name but would explain the physical properties of the mineral and how to differentiate it from another similar mineral. He was tall and rather dour-looking and serious but very friendly. He taught a fine course in sedimentology.

Metamorphic terrains were the love of Larry Smith, a Canadian. He was noted for his driving, grumbling when he was tailgated by another vehicle. He finally solved this problem by bringing along a stadia rod that he had students push out the back window of the geology station wagon (in those days we didn't have vans) to indicate that the vehicle behind (usually a large truck) was too close and get the driver to back off. "Well he finally got the message," he would say. In those days we usually had to use some student cars on field trips. He was famous for one trip to the Adirondacks anorthosite belt. He would gleefully load large rocks samples into student cars. After a few outcrop stops it was noted that the car tires were buckling under the added load. Pretty soon at addition stops students surreptitiously began unloading Larry's specimens. The students claimed that was the only way they could make it back home.

Dick Olsson is noted for the famous coal drop. It seems that a large piece of anthracite coal, about 4' long, 2' wide, and 2' thick had been sitting on the geology museum floor since the turn of the century. It was no longer relevant to energy since home heating with anthracite had been discontinued by about 1940. The space was needed for an exhibit but what to do with the huge piece of coal that weighed about 400 lbs? It was too heavy to easily move it from museum on the second floor so it was decided to drop it out of a window facing College Avenue. It wasn't noticed that the ground underneath the window sloped towards the basement floor to handle water drainage. It took six people to lift the piece of coal to the windowsill. By this time a small crowd of people were looking up wondering what was going on. With a great effort the piece of coal was shoved out the window. Well the coal tumbled out and fell to the ground watched by the crowd of people. The piece of coal hit the slope and spun into and through a ground floor window into a basement classroom. Fortunately, no one was there but the people watching applauded the show. The coal was finally removed by breaking it into small pieces, which is what should have been done in the first place.

This little bit of history does not include the people who played brief roles in the department, teaching courses, working in the Bureau of Mineral Research and doing curatorial work in the museum. This would make the article too long. Any errors in the above account are due to faulty memory.