Chamberlin, Thomas Chrowder

Chamberlin, Thomas Chrowder

Chamberlin, Thomas Chrowder, 1843-1928, American geologist, b. Mattoon, Ill., grad. Beloit College, 1866. He was professor of geology at Beloit (1873-82), president of the Univ. of Wisconsin (1887-92), and professor of geology and director of the Walker Museum at the Univ. of Chicago (1892-1919). Chamberlin was chief geologist of the geological survey of Wisconsin (1873-82) and the founder (1893) of the Journal of Geology. While studying glaciation and climates in past geologic times he noted defects in the nebular hypothesis of Laplace that led him to formulate, with the American astronomer F. R. Moulton, the planetesimal hypothesis of the origin of the solar system. Chamberlin wrote The Geology of Wisconsin (1873-82), A Contribution to the Theory of Glacial Motion (1904), A General Treatise on Geology (with Rollin D. Salisbury, 1906), The Origin of the Earth (1916), and Two Solar Families (1928).
Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin (September 25,1843 - November 15, 1928) was an influential American geologist and educator. In 1893 he founded the Journal of Geology, of which he was editor for many years.


Chamberlin was born September 25, 1843 in Mattoon, Illinois. When he was three years old his family moved north to near Beloit, Wisconsin. His father was a Methodist circuit minister and farmer. He attended a preparatory academy before entering Beloit College, where he received a classical education in Greek and Latin, while becoming interested in natural science. While a student at Beloit he directed a church choir and participated in athletics and debate.

After graduation from Beloit College in 1866, Chamberlin worked for two years as a teacher and later principal in a high school near Beloit. He was married to Alma Wilson in 1867.

In 1868–1869, Chamberlin spent a year taking graduate courses, including geology, at the University of Michigan to strengthen his scientific background. Subsequently (1869-1873) he became professor of natural science at the State Normal School in Whitewater, Wisconsin. He joined the Beloit faculty in 1873, where he was professor of geology, zoology, and botany. In 1873 he also became one of several part-time participants in conducting a comprehensive geological survey of Wisconsin. His geologic mapping work in southeastern Wisconsin, a region mantled with thick glacial deposits, led him to recognize multiple episodes of glaciation during the Pleistocene. His terminology for glacial stages in North America is still in use, with minor modifications.

In 1876 Chamberlin became chief geologist for the Wisconsin geological survey, supervising the completion of the survey and the publication of the four-volume report, for which he authored sections on glacial deposits, Paleozoic and Precambrian bedrock geology, lead-zinc ore deposits, artesian wells, and soils. The project brought him national attention and led to his appointment as head of the glacial division of the US Geological Survey in 1881. He later was president of the University of Wisconsin (1887 - 1892).

In 1892 he accepted the offer to organize a department of geology at the new University of Chicago, where he remained as a professor until 1918). From 1898 to 1914 he was president of the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

He developed the planetesimal theory, which states that Earth was made from smaller objects that gradually built the planets by accretion. From this theory and other geological evidence he concluded that Earth was much older than assumed by Lord Kelvin (ca 100 million years) at the time.

Chamberlin remained active professionally up until his death in Chicago on November 15, 1928.

His papers are housed in the Beloit College archives, along with the papers of his son, Rollin T. Chamberlin, who was also a geologist.. There are buildings named for him on the Beloit College and University of Wisconsin-Madison campuses. The lunar crater Chamberlin and a crater on Mars are named in his honor.

See also


His publications include:

  • Outline of a Course of Oral Instruction (1872)
  • Geology of Wisconsin (1877)
  • Preliminary paper on the terminal moraine of the second glacial epoch (U.S. Geological Survey, 1882) * The rock scorings of the great ice invasions ((U.S. Geological Survey, 1886)
  • The method of multiple working hypotheses. Science. v. 15:92–96p. (1890)
  • Contribution to the Theory of Glacial Motion (1904)
  • With R. D. Salisbury, Geology (three volumes, 1907-09)
  • The Origin of the Earth (1916)



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