Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/November 1884/Sketch of Professor James Hall

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THE name of Professor James Hall is inseparably associated with the growth of American geology, the classification of the palæozoic strata of the continent, and the systematization of their paleontology. Connected with the New York State Geological Survey since 1837, he has been for about forty years, as chief of the paleontological department, engaged in the study of fossil remains. His words are now referred to in illustration of, and his name is cited as authority on, questions connected with the older geological formations of the continent, by the geologists of the world more frequently than those, probably, of any other American in the same field.

James Hall was born, of English parents, in Hingham, Massachusetts, on the 12th of September, 1811. He studied natural history, under the direction of Amos Eaton, at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where he afterward became Professor of Geology. Professor Eaton had already, by his lectures before the members of the State Legislature and other audiences, and by his instrumentality in the organization of the Troy Lyceum of Natural History and in the formation of its geological collection, contributed to awaken an interest in the study of the natural history and geology of the State. He had superintended an agricultural and geological survey of Rensselaer and Albany Counties, and had made a survey of the district adjoining the Erie Canal, and published a report upon it. The subject of instituting a complete geological survey of the State was presented before the Legislature in 1834, and the act making provision for the work was passed in 1836. In the organization of the survey the State was divided into four districts, of which Mr, Hall was appointed assistant in the second district, under Professor Ebenezer Emmons, of Williams College. The district included the counties of Warren, Essex, Clinton, Franklin, Hamilton, and St. Lawrence, and afterward Jefferson. At the end of the year, on the appointment of Mr. Conrad, of the third district, to the department of paleontology, and the transfer of Mr. Vanuxen, of the fourth district, to the position he vacated, Mr. Hall was made geologist of the third district, including the counties of Montgomery, Herkimer, Oneida, Lewis, Oswego, Madison, Onondaga, Cayuga, Wayne, Ontario, Monroe, Orleans, and Livingston. He published annual reports of his work regularly from 1838 to 1841, and concluded the series with a final report in 1843, which forms one of the series of works on the natural history of the State published by the Legislature. In this volume he gave a full description of the order and succession of the strata, their mineralogical and lithological characters, and the organic remains contained in them. Concerning the form in which the volumes of the reports are published, Professor Hall has related an incident that affords a curious illustration of American official spread-eagleism. The incumbents of the several departments of the survey wished to publish their works in octavo, so that the results might appear in convenient form, and become hand-books for students of science. The plan was overruled by Governor Seward and his advisers, "who considered it due to the dignity and importance of the State of New York that the volumes should be published in quarto form, especially as they were to be presented to other States and foreign governments as emblematic of the greatness of the State." The survey was reorganized between 1842 and 1844. A department of agriculture was added, and the paleontological department—Mr. Conrad having resigned without making a report—was assigned to Professor Hall, who began his work in 1844, "almost without a collection of fossils of any kind, without a library for reference, without artists, or any of the appliances or resources considered necessary in scientific investigation. It became necessary to create the department from the beginning." No appropriations of money were made by the State for the collection of fossils till 1856, when provision was made for eight years, and the whole burden of labor and expense was till then thrown upon Professor Hall. He was assisted in these arduous labors by his wife, who drew the figures of a large number of the fossils.

Five volumes of the "Paleontology" have been published, two of which were divided into two parts, making seven bound volumes. As analyzed by Dr. T. Sterry Hunt, the first volume, of 338 pages and one hundred plates, contains descriptions of all the organic remains, both of animals and plants, beginning with the lowest member of the New York system and ascending to the Champlain division, which terminates in the Hudson River group, corresponding to the Cambrian of Sedgwick, or the Cambrian and Lower Silurian of Murchison. The second volume, of 363 pages and more than a hundred plates, continues the system up to the base of the Onondaga or Salina formation. The third volume, of 533 pages, with 128 plates, includes all the fossil remains of the water-limes, the Lower Helderberg, and Oriskany divisions, except the corals and bryozoa. The fourth volume includes the brachiopoda of the Upper Helderberg, Hamilton, Portage, and Chemung divisions, which together constitute the Erian or Devonian. The fifth volume contains the lamellibranchiates of the divisions just named, together with a review of all the lamellibranchiate forms of the lower formations. Two other volumes are to include the gasteropodæ, cephalopodæ, crustaceæ, crinoideæ, bryozoæ, and corals of the Erian. Professor Hall has prepared, also, for the "Paleontology," a complete revision of the brachiopods of North America, with about fifty plates, in aid of which he has extended his researches to the Rocky Mountains, tracing the great divisions of the New York series over the intervening region; and the identifications made by him have served as the basis of all our knowledge of the geology of the Mississippi Basin.

Professor Hall himself says of the rationale of the system of nomenclature under which the New York surveys were conducted, and which has served as the basis of the Western surveys: "Since there was no possibility of identifying the individual rocks and groups of strata with those of Europe, as described, the New York geologists were compelled to give names to the different members of the series; and since the sandstones, limestones, slates, and shales are so similar in different and successive groups, it was impossible to give descriptive names which would discriminate the one from the other. Therefore, local names were proposed and adopted; as, for example, Potsdam sandstone, Trenton limestone, Niagara limestone, and Niagara shale (the two latter, with subordinate beds, making up the Niagara group), the Medina sandstone, the Onondaga salt group, the Hamilton, Portage, and Chemung groups, thus giving typical localities of the rock instead of descriptive names. This method or system of nomenclature leaves no possibility of mistake or confusion which might arise from a different appreciation of descriptive terms. The typical locality always remains for study, comparison, and reference, and there need be no difference of opinion or discussion as to what was intended by the use of any one of the terms. The progress of geological science in the country is greatly indebted to this system of nomenclature, and to the absolute working out of the succession of the groups, and the members of the same, to which it has been applied." The system was adopted by a vote of the Geological Board.

The geologists of the survey were accustomed to meet once a year in the Capitol of the State, to compare notes. "The comparison of observations and interchange of views led to the opening of correspondence, by a formal resolution of the New York Board, with other geologists, especially with those engaged in State surveys, of which several were then in progress. This correspondence led to an agreement for a meeting of geologists in Philadelphia in the spring of 1840, and this assemblage, of less than a score of persons, led to the organization of the Association of American Geologists, which, at a later period, on the occasion of its third meeting, added the term Naturalists; and, finally, by expanding its title, it became the American Association for the Advancement of Science." Professor Hall was president of this association, under its present title, at its Albany meeting in 1856.

The general results of Professor Hall's comparative studies in the West are given in the third volume of the "Paleontology," and more fully in the first volume of the "Report on the Geology of Iowa," where he was engaged in the survey, with Whitney and Worthen. To this survey he contributed a memoir on the paleontology of the State, as he did to the survey of Wisconsin; and some of the fruits of his paleontological labors may be found embodied in the geological reports of several other States. He declined to take the direction of the paleontological department of the survey of Canada, under Sir William Logan, but undertook the study of the graptolites of the Quebec group, and published a monograph on them, which was afterward republished, with additions, in the "Twentieth Report of the New York State Cabinet of Natural History." The list of his other contributions to American geology includes articles in the reports of the "State Cabinet and State Museum"; "Descriptions of Organic Remains," given in the Goverament reports of various Western surveys, including the reports of Fremont, Stansbury, and the boundary survey of the United States and Mexico; and numerous contributions to the "American Journal of Science," and to various scientific societies at home and abroad. He is a foreign member of the Geological Society of London, and received the Wollaston medal from it in 1858; and is a corresponding member of the Institute of France. M. Ch. Barrois, reviewing in the "Revue Scientifique" the latest published volume of Professor Hall's "Paleontology," says that, like all the other publications of the author, it "brings an ample harvest of new and important facts. It would form the base and the foundation of the study of the palaeozoic bivalves, if it did not have to share that honor with the work recently published by our regretted compatriot Barrande, on the 'Acephalæ of the Silurian of Bohemia.' Never will the names be separated of these two superior men, who have devoted themselves during this century with an equal activity to the study of the palaeozoic faunas. Born in countries distant from each other, in environments still more widely separated in modes of thought, Barrande and James Hall came to fill the same part in the history of science. The same love of research and of the truth animated them; the same indomitable energy constantly encouraged and sustained them; and, with all the work that has been accomplished by numbers of other specialists, every one will recognize that these two men have competently described the fauna of the transition-beds. They have done more in that direction than all the rest of their generation."

Professor Hall devoted much attention to the study of crystalline as well as of fossiliferous stratified rocks, and was, according to Dr. Hunt, the first to point out the persistence and significance of mineralogical character as a guide to their classification, in the manner which has since been developed and extended by the latter geologist. Among his other most important contributions to geological science is his suggestion of a rational theory of mountains, in regarding them as the products of erosion, aided by the upheaval and contortion of strata as an incidental, not a chief factor.

The magnificent collection of fossils accumulated by Professor Hall during the course of his geological work has been transferred to the American Museum of Natural History, and now forms a part of the cabinet in the New York Central Park.