Author talk:Joseph William Winthrop Spencer

Latest comment: 10 years ago by AdamBMorgan in topic Life and Works

Life and Works


Joseph William Spencer was born in Dundas, Ontario, Canada on March 26, 1851. His father was Joseph Spencer (1806-1851), who built the Gore Grist and Paper Mills in Dundas in 1834. Joseph senior was a pioneer builder in Dundas, and Spencer’s Creek is named for him: he died by falling from the roof of the mill shortly after his son’s birth. Spencer’s great grandfather was Robert (d. 1820), a United Empire Loyalist and Butler’s ranger, originally from New Jersey and New York. Spencer believed that both he and his wife were originally related to the Winthrops of Massachusetts and Connecticut: he substituted Winthrop for William after he moved to the United States, but always signed his name “J.W. Spencer”. Two of Spencer’s uncles also achieved some prominence: Benjamin (1808-1895) move to Dundas with Joseph (Sr.) but left in 1854 for Iowa, where in 1869 he became a member of the State House of Representatives; James (1812-1863) became an early Methodist circuit rider, and was later editor of the influential weekly journal, the Christian Guardian.

Spencer was educated in Dundas: he and his mother moved to Hamilton in 1867, where he worked for two years as an assistant for T. Bickell, a pharmacist. By that time he was already interested in geology and chemistry, an interest further developed by contact with amateur geologists associated with the Hamilton Association. In 1871 he left to study geology at McGill University in Montreal, where he was a student of William Dawson, and graduated in 1874 with first class honours in the new program of Applied Science. He then worked for a summer with the Geological Survey of Canada, as assistant to Robert Bell: both Dawson and Bell remained close friends in later life. Unable to find work in Canada, Spencer worked in 1875 for Luther Emerson, a surveyor in the Upper Michigan copper mines. Returning to Hamilton he obtained a position as science teacher in the Hamilton Collegiate Institute. One of his pupils, Andrew Lawson, later became a famous professor of geology at Berkeley, California. In the summer of 1877 Spencer travelled to Germany where he obtained his doctorate at Göttingen (his thesis was on the Michigan copper deposits: Spencer was the second Canadian ever to earn a doctorate in geology).

In 1880, he was appointed Professor of geology and chemistry (and later Vice-President) at King’s College, Windsor, Nova Scotia, a small Episcopalian university. In 1882, Spencer was appointed by university president Samuel Spahr Laws to be professor of geology and mineralogy and curator of a new Natural History Museum at the University of Missouri: he helped design, build and equip the museum, but Laws’ plans for it soon ran into political and financial troubles (and the museum later burned down). Spencer lost his position in 1888 but was appointed Professor at the State University in Athens, Georgia and later State Geologist in Atlanta. He began a geological survey of the northwest part of the State, but soon ran into political problems once again, since he was more interested in science and stratigraphy than in gold mining. In 1894 he moved to Washington, DC, where he operated as an independent consultant geologist until he returned to Canada in 1920. In 1896 he married Kate Sinclair Thomson of Toronto. He died in Toronto on October 9, 1921, and is buried in the family grave in Dundas.

Spencer was an original fellow of the Geological Society of America. He was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Manitoba, which also awards the Winthrop Spencer Gold Medal in his memory. He published many papers in leading geological journals, but the best known work falls into two main categories: (i) his early work on preglacial rivers in the Great Lakes basins; and (ii) his work on the proglacial lakes which were the forerunners of the present Great Lakes: he mapped their beaches and named many of the lakes, and these studies also led to his best known publication, a volume on Niagara Falls (1907) commissioned by the Geological Survey of Canada. Though Spencer returned to the Great Lakes region frequently throughout his life, his main travels after he moved to Washington were (with his wife) in Central America and the Caribbean. His work on the Great Lakes had convinced him that the region had stood much higher before the ice age, and had been flooded by the sea in more recent times (indeed Spencer believed that the proglacial lakes were actually marine or brackish, with floating ice, not freshwater lakes dammed by ice sheets). His investigations of the Caribbean islands also revealed evidence of large changes in sea level, and the discovery of submarine canyons on the western Atlantic continental slope seemed to Spencer to be further evidence in favor of his theories: later work has shown that all these phenomena can be explained by agencies unknown in Spencer’s day, without invoking the immense changes in elevation (many thousands of feet) that he proposed.



Middleton, G.V., 2004. J.W. Spencer (1851-1921): His life in Canada, and his work on preglacial river valleys. Geoscience Canada, v.31, p.49-56.

Middleton, G.V., 2004. J.W. Spencer (1851-1921): His life in Missouri and Georgia, and work on proglacial lakes. Geoscience Canada, v31, p.147-156.

Middleton, G.V., 2005. Spencer, Joseph William Winthrop. Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

Shaw, E.W., 1924. Memorial of Joseph William Winthrop Spencer: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 35, p. 25-36.