Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/December 1892/Sketch of George Frederick Wright



PROF. WRIGHT has come forward within a few years to a foremost position among authorities in geology and the antiquity of man. His studies of glacial action have been thorough, extended, comprehensive, and fruitful of results beyond those of almost any other single observer, and make singularly fitting the curious designation given him by Judge Baldwin, Secretary of the Western Reserve Historical Society, as "the apostle of the Ice Age and Early Man."

George Frederick Wright was born in Whitehall, N. Y., January 22, 1838. His parents were plain people, in moderate circumstances, not exempt from the necessity of labor, who, participating in the sentiment which that institution then represented, sent their son to Oberlin College, five hundred miles away. Thence he was graduated, from the classical course in 1859, and from the Theological Seminary in 1862. While in the Theological Seminary he responded to Lincoln's first call for troops, and enlisted as a private in the Seventh Ohio Volunteers. He served five months, and was then discharged after a severe sickness. During ten years from the fall of 1862 he served as pastor of the First Congregational Church in Bakersfield, Vt., in a parish from which, though it could pay its minister only the most modest of salaries, he was able to send many young men to the denominational colleges. Besides attending to his pastoral duties and engaging actively in revival work in his own church and in the surrounding towns, he entered vigorously into educational movements; started and presided over a vigorous farmers' club; studied the local geology and wrote articles for the country paper on the glacial phenomena of the region; read his Hebrew Bible through; and translated Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and several of Plato's philosophical works. His geological studies led to an acquaintance and correspondence with Prof. Hitchcock.

In 1871 he became pastor of a Congregational church in Andover, Mass., where he enjoyed the friendship of the professors in the Theological Seminary; made the acquaintance of Prof. Asa Gray, of Harvard; and began an active literary career. His eyes were open to the geological phenomena of the region—one of the first questions he asked upon his arrival, of a fellow-minister, relating to that subject. He was told that the country was under the glacial drift, and he soon gave his attention to that. "During his walks and drives he would stop to measure a 'kettle-hole,' or he would push far into the country to follow some gravel ridge. He made constant inquiries of fellow-ministers in other places as to the phenomena of their region. Every book that he could find bearing upon glacial work he read, and as early as 1876 we find his observations extendedly reported in the Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, under the titles of Some Remarkable Gravel Ridges in the Merrimac Valley, and the Karnes and Moraines of New England. In this he showed that he had found a clew to a most important kind of glacial deposits which had heretofore been misunderstood." While he was engaged in preparing this paper Mr. Clarence King gave him information concerning the terminal moraine south of New England, which directed his attention to that quarter; and after that, he says, in the preface to his great work on the Ice Age in North America, the subject was never out of his mind, and all his summer months were devoted, under favorable conditions, to the collection of fieldnotes regarding it. Four seasons were given to making himself familiar with the glacial phenomena of New England; after which he was invited by Prof. Lesley to survey, in company with the late Prof. H. Carvill Lewis, the boundary of the glaciated area across Pennsylvania to the border of Ohio. The report of this work constitutes Volume Z in the publications of the Second Pennsylvania Geological Survey.

In 1881 Prof. Wright became Professor of New-Testament Exegesis in Oberlin Theological Seminary. Almost the first question he asked after his arrival in Oberlin was a geological one: "What is the age of the canon of Plum Creek?" Plum Creek is a modest stream enough, but Prof. Wright made it and its work in denudation, in his Ice Age in North America, the basis of an important and interesting calculation concerning the antiquity of the Great Ice Age. In a similar manner he made use of the waterfalls of northern Ohio to illustrate the effect of glacial action on the appearance of the landscape. In the summers of 1882 and 1883 he was engaged, with the co-operation of the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio, in continuing the survey across Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana; the results of which work were given in his report to the society, and in an article published in the American Journal of Science for July, 1883. The report proved to be the most distinguished publication ever made by the society. It was republished verbatim by the State of Pennsylvania, and has been published in substance by two other commonwealths. In it Prof. Wright described the spots where seekers might most profitably look for the evidences of man in glacial times, saying, "Man lived first below the glacial limit, and fished upon the banks of streams which were periodically gorged with the spring freshets of the Glacial period, and during those floods lost his spear-heads, his hammers, his axes, and his scrapers, where they became mingled with the gravel brought down from up stream." Palæolithic implements have since been found at three of the places which he specifically pointed out.

During the summers of 1884 and 1885 he was employed with the United States Geological Survey in tracing the glacial boundary across Illinois, and in reviewing the field in Ohio and western Pennsylvania. His report of this work appeared in 1890, as Bulletin 58 of the United States Geological Survey, on The Glacial Boundary in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. In the summer of 1886 he visited Washington Territory and examined the Muir Glacier in Alaska, where he spent the month of August in company with the Rev. J. L. Patton and Mr. Prentiss Baldwin, collecting facts concerning the motion, size, present general condition, and probable past history and future career of the glacier. He devoted the two following seasons to the further exploration of Ohio and of Dakota, and other parts of the Northwest. "Thus," he says, "I have personally been over a large part of the field containing the wonderful array of facts" which he presents in his Ice Age in North America.

Since making these systematic explorations, while he has continued his outdoor work in various fields, Prof. Wright has devoted much attention to presenting the results of his researches to the public. He delivered courses of lectures on the subject before the Lowell Institute in Boston in the fall of 1887, before the Peabody Institute in Baltimore in 1888, and in Brooklyn, N. Y. The substance of these lectures, rewritten and much added to, was published in 1889 in his noble book, the Ice Age in North America and its Bearings on the Antiquity of Man, a large illustrated volume of 648 pages, which may be fitly described as one of the most valuable of recent contributions to the literature of geology, and as marking an important step in the advance of the science. The volume also contains an exhaustive discussion of the evidences concerning the early presence of man on the American continent, and particularly his existence during the ice age. Besides incorporating in this discussion the fruits of the discoveries of Dr. Metz in Ohio, of Cresson at Medora, Ind., and Claymont, Del., of Winchell and Miss Babbitt in Minnesota, of Dr. Abbott in the Delaware Valley, of Whitney in California, etc., he has introduced discoveries in regard to which he has himself made careful investigations; of the palæolithic implements found at Newcomerstown, Ohio, of the image found at Nampa, Idaho, under the basalt, and of a stone mortar found under Table Mountain in California. As a professor habituated to theological studies, the question of man's antiquity naturally followed him in these investigations, with the inevitable conclusion that the human period must be allowed an extension far beyond previous ideas of the subject, as well as the question of the method of reconciling the fact with the chronology of the human race supposed to be given in the Bible. This subject is discussed in his Studies in Science and Religion (Andover, 1882) and Divine Authority of the Bible (Boston, 1884), and is dismissed in the book on the Ice Age with a reference to those works as containing all that it seems to be necessary for him to say on the point, and with the additional remark that "I see no reason why these views should seriously disturb the religious faith of any believer in the inspiration of the Bible. At all events, it is incumbent on us to welcome the truth, from whatever source it may come." The summer of 1890 was spent by Prof. Wright in the lava fields of Idaho and California, in careful investigations and verification of the evidences of man's antiquity recently found there, of which mention has just been made.

In the summer of 1891 Prof. Wright visited Europe, where his fame as a specialist in glacial geology had gone before him. Meeting the British geologists, he was warmly received by them, and was able to give them, through conclusions drawn from his American studies, information and light concerning the glaciation of their own islands and to bring about a satisfactory settlement of questions that had been in controversy among them. The results of his additional studies in Europe were given in an article in the American Journal of Science for January, 1892, and are more fully stated in his volume in the International Scientific Series, on Man and the Glacial Period, just published by D. Appleton & Co. In the winter of 1891-92 Prof. Wright gave a second course of lectures in the Lowell Institute, to uniformly large audiences.

A movement has been set on foot among the alumni of Oberlin College living in Cleveland, Ohio, to endow a chair in that institution to be known as the Cleveland Professorship in Oberlin College of the Relation between Science and Revelation, which shall first be held by Prof. Wright. The call of the committee in charge of this enterprise mentions as a motive inspiring it the desire to enlarge and extend the work of the college in the direction of scientific investigation and instruction, and adds: "There are strong local and personal reasons relating to Prof. Wright's position and future work which urge immediate action in this matter. His ability and faithful services for many years in the department of New Testament Literature are appreciated. But there are other men, it may be, who can do this work as well as he; while, unquestionably, there is a field which he has made peculiarly his own, and which he is qualified, by tastes, studies, original researches, and authorship, still further to enrich and adorn. He has gathered facts from a wide range of investigation and proposed and proved theories which make him an authority upon glacial geology, the antiquity of man, the relations of science and religion, and the proper interpretation and harmony of Nature and the Bible revelations. Having done so much for science in the vacations of his theological labors, it appears that the time has come when he should be enabled, by a transfer to such new professorship, not only to teach these special subjects, but also to pursue his studies and researches and to add to his publications respecting them. He has done the two things well, but can do the one thing better, and better than any other living man." The call goes on to give reasons why Prof. Wright and his work should not be severed from Oberlin College. The work has been carried on while in the service of that institution, and has been greatly assisted by the Cleveland (Western Reserve) Historical Society, "which has liberally promoted the studies in glacial geology which have shed new light upon the antiquities of Ohio, and enriched its collections of historical remains and the evidences of the prehistoric period. These local relations should not be disturbed." The committee specify as conditions of the endowment, which is fixed at $50,000, that the whole income be used by Prof. Wright, first for his salary at a rate fixed by the general rules of the college, and the remainder for the cost of travel, explorations, scientific books, and other aids and necessary expenses of his investigations, under the direction of the Board of Trustees of the college; that he be allowed one half of each year, free from class duties, for original work in his special field; and that his relations to the Cleveland Historical Society be continued. This plan has been approved by Prof. Wright and by the faculty and trustees of the college.

Besides his scientific publications, the more important of which have been mentioned, Prof. Wright is the author of many other works, chiefly on theological subjects. During his pastorate at Andover he published a number of articles in the Bibliotheca Sacra, notably one on the Theology of President Finney, and four on Darwinism. Numerous articles have appeared in the Nation, Advance, Congregationalist, and Independent newspapers, and others of considerable importance, in The New-Englander, The Atlantic Monthly, and Scribner's Magazine. His book, Logic of Christian Evidences, at once attained a large circulation, and is used in several schools and colleges as a textbook. He has presented the doctrines and evidences of Christianity in Studies in Science and Religion, The Relation of Death to Probation, and the Divine Authority of the Bible; and, since 1884, he has been editor of the Bibliotheca Sacra.