History of the Department

C.K. Leith
C.K. Leith 1903-3

The Leith EraCharles K. Leith succeeded Van Hise as head of the Department of Geology and also chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Lake Superior Division. Under Leith’s leadership, the faculty grew and diversified manyfold, and gained international stature, especially in “Precambrian geology” (i.e. structure, metamorphism, and mineral deposits). During both world wars, Leith served important roles in Washington as an adviser on strategic mineral resources.

The new specialty of physiography or physical geography was added to the Department of Geology with the appointments of N.M. Fenneman (1903-07), L.M. Martin (1907-17), and R.H. Whitbeck (1908-28).

The closely related field of glacial geology, introduced by T.C. Chamberlin in the 1880s, continued to thrive, as it does yet today within geology. Meanwhile, Eliot Blackwelder (1905-16), offered the first formal course in sedimentation in the country.

A Treatise on Metamorphism
–Van Hise’s momentous tome (1286 pages) defined the discipline of metamorphic geology and established the importance of chemical energy, pressure, and temperature.

HN Winchell
H.N. Winchell

Mineralogy and petrology–A new level of specialization was achieved with the appointment of Horace N. Winchell. This began a tradition of pre-eminence for the UW in these subjects, which continues today.

Experimental and engineering geology–The department pioneered a new specialty with the appointment of Warren J. Mead, whose talent for mathematical and experimental approaches led him into the new territory of rock deformation at high pressures and to engineering applications of geology. His prowess was recognized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which lured Mead away in 1934 to chair its Department of Geology.

WJ Mean
W.J. Mead

International prominence–The geology faculty had grown from four in 1888 to 10 members in 1915. Under C.K. Leith’s leadership, the reputation of the department had grown to pre-eminence in hardrock geology so that foreign students and post-doctoral visitors were now attracted, especially from Canada. Geology accounted for 20 percent of the Ph.Ds. being granted by the university.

1916 to present date
Sedimentary geology–In 1916 the department began a new era of strength in all aspects of sedimentary geology and paleontology with the appointment of William H. Twenhofel, who was to become one of the founders in the late 1920s of the subfield of sedimentology.

The Department of Geology became the Department of Geology and Geography in recognition of the growth of importance of the latter.

First female Ph.D.–Selma L. Schubring was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the department. Her dissertation, which was directed by geographer R.H. Whitbeck, was entitled A Statistical Study of Lead and Zinc Mining in Wisconsin. (See also a 1954 entry below.)

The international export of Wisconsin geologic expertise is exemplified by the 1924 odyssey of two young graduates, Olaf Rove and Sherwood Buckstaff. Being of Norwegian descent, Rove obtained a scholarship to study at Oslo, and classmate Buckstaff visited him there in the summer. On a field trip with Norwegian geologist Thorolf Vogt in the Scottish Highlands, they showed the older man that a complexly folded succession of strata must be inverted by applying what was to them a familiar criterion for “way up,” namely the truncation of cross bedding. Through Vogt, this demonstration ultimately led to the “re-education” of famous Scottish geologist, Edward Bailey, who had mapped the area.

The international reputation of the department was by now firmly established. Individuals were attracted from China, Japan, and Europe as well as Canada for graduate and post-doctoral studies. A notable example was Gilbert Wilson, who came with a McGill undergraduate degree to obtain an M.S. from Wisconsin in 1926. He then returned to his native England, obtained a Ph.D. from Imperial College, and ultimately joined the Imperial faculty. Wilson introduced the Wisconsin concepts of structural geology learned from Van Hise, Leith, and Mead, to Britain, which fostered a post-WWII flowering of detailed structural analysis in Europe (see also 1963-66 below).

W.H. Twenhofel
W.H. Twenhofel 1926

The Treatise on Sedimentation published by the National Research Council, with W.H. Twenhofel as chairman of the committee of authors, defined the new specialty of sedimentology. In the same year, Twenhofel was a co-founder of the first professional society for sedimentary geology, the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists (SEPM). He was also the editor of the first journal in the specialty, the Journal of Sedimentary Petrology, for 13 years (1933-46). SEPM’s highest award is named the “Twenhofel Medal.”

A separate Department of Geography was formed, with V.C. Finch as chairman. The study of glacial geology remained within Geology.


Strategic minerals had been a concern of C.K. Leith’s since the 1920s. With the onset of World War II, he assumed major roles as adviser on mineral resources to several branches of the federal government. E.N. Cameron, then with the U.S. Geological Survey, was engaged in the study of pegmatite minerals, some of which were of strategic importance.

The Department of Meteorology was formed under the chairmanship of Reid A. Bryson, former Professor of Geology and Geography.

U.S. Geological Survey’s Lake Superior Office–Carl E. Dutton was the last supervisor of this USGS outpost, which first opened on the campus in 1882. Dutton was closely allied both with the state survey and the department. He occasionally taught introductory geology for the department and for the UW Extension Division, and was a rich resource of knowledge of Lake Superior Precambrian geology.

G.P. Woolard
G.P. Woolard

Geophysics became a mainstay specialty within the Department of Geology with the appointment of George P. Woollard, who succeeded the brief 1945-46 tenure of Louis B. Slichter (son of UW mathematician and long-time Dean of the Graduate School Charles S. Slichter). Woollard quickly built a large and diverse research program in geophysics, and, by the early 1960s there were four geophysics faculty members.

X-Ray crystallography–Sturges W. Bailey’s appointment to the faculty brought the latest expertise in X-ray crystallography to the department. He had just completed his Ph.D. at Cambridge, England under W.L. Bragg and W.H. Taylor, and quickly developed an international reputation in this field, especially for his meticulous investigations of the layered silicate minerals. Besides exemplary research contributions, Bailey was renowned as a gifted classroom and short course lecturer–always a model of clarity and organization.