The Geological Society of America and its Founders

The Geological Society of America's First Official Seal (1891-1935)
The Geological Society of America’s First Official Seal (1891-1935)

The formation of an American geological society was initially proposed at the 18 August 1881 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Seven years later, the concept was refocused. In June 1888, the AAAS Section E (Geology and Geography) journal American Geologist (created as a direct result of work by Geological Society of America [GSA] Founders and brothers Alexander and Newton Horace Winchell and others) issued a call for all American geologists to meet to consider the formation of an American geological society. The vote in August 1888 was positive, and on 27 December 1888, the first formal organization meeting of the American Geological Society was held at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.  Thirteen original Fellows were present.  Elder statesmen James Dwight Dana, James Hall, John Strong Newberry, and John Wesley Powell served among the initial elected officers and councilors, undertaking “leadership roles to help nurture the infant society through its first year” (Mirsky, 1988, p. 8). The name of the society was changed to The Geological Society of America in 1889.

The American Geological Society’s active founders were as follows:

H.L. Fairchild – Rochester University, Rochester, NY
James Hall – State Museum, Albany, NY
C.H. Hitchcock – Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
J.F. Kemp – Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
W.J. McGee – U.S. Geological Survey
H.B. Nason – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
J.J. Stevenson – University of the City of New York, NY
I.C. White – West Viginia University, Morgantown, WV
H.S. Williams – Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
J.F. Williams – Pratt Technical Institute, Brooklyn, NY
S.G. Williams – Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Alexander Winchell – University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
N.H. Winchell – University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN

The first officers and councilors of the new society were:

President: James Hall, Albany, NY
First Vice-President: James D. Dana, New Haven, CT
Second Vice-President: Alexander Winchell, Ann Arbor, MI
Secretary: John J. Stevenson, New York, NY
Treasurer: Henry S. Williams, Ithaca, NY
Members-at-large of the Council:
Charles H. Hitchcock, Hanover, NH
John S. Newberry, New York, NY
John W. Powell, Washington, D.C.

When GSA joined the league of established American scientific societies, writes Mirsky, it was the only one devoted to geologists continent-wide. In terms of the publication and dissemination of geological findings and ideas, this was a monumental step. Prior to this point, publication, though prolific, was haphazard, and studies were mostly supported by geologists’ personal finances or that of their wealthy patrons. Government support for geological studies and publication became available after the establishment of the state geological surveys ca. 1830, but the U.S. still lagged behind its European counterparts. According to Mirsky, geologic articles appeared regularly in a variety of media covering an assortment of topics, but none had real continuity or regular scientific readership.

Genealogy of the Geological Society of America.  Note the early role of geologist in the founding of AAAS, from which GSA is derived.
Genealogy of the Geological Society of America.                                                                         Note the early role of geologists in the founding of AAAS, from which GSA is derived.

One of the main reasons GSA was formed, especially in the eyes of the Winchell brothers, was to provide a platform for the publication of geologic papers, abstracts, and meeting proceedings, as well as other news aimed at geoscientists. Among the Society’s first decisions was to establish the Geological Society of America Bulletin (first published in February 1890) and to change the meeting dates for technical sessions from summer, when AAAS met, to a post-field season winter month.


GSA is celebrating its 125th Anniversary at its annual meeting in Denver, Colorado, USA, on 27–30 October 2013. As part of that celebration, this blog will publish a series of posts about GSA’s 16 “founding fellows.”

We begin with GSA’s first president, James Hall.

James Hall

Initial President and Active Founder

James Hall, 1811-1898.  First President of the Geological Society of America, 1889.
James Hall, 1811-1898. First President of the Geological Society of America, 1889.

Personal. James Hall (known to historians as James Hall, Jr.) was born in Hingham, Massachusetts, on September 12, 1811, and died of a stroke in Echo Hill, Bethlehem, New Hampshire, on August 7, 1898.

Hall’s father and namesake, when only 19 years old, left England for the United States. He met an equally young woman on the ship and, shortly after arriving in Boston, they were married. James Hall was their first son. He attended the public school in Hingham after which he went to Rensselaer Institute in Troy, New York, where he studied natural science under Amos Eaton, receiving his degree in 1832.

Hall’s early development as a geologist was greatly influenced by Eaton, who, upon Hall’s graduation, made Hall a librarian and, shortly after, an assistant professor at Rensselaer. Eaton introduced Hall to Stephen Van Rensselaer, who had supported Eaton’s own studies, and for whom Hall undertook his first systematic field work in geology. Van Rensselaer was favorably impressed by Hall and used his influence to get Hall an appointment in 1836 as an assistant to Ebenezer Emmons, who was one of four district geologists in the newly formed New York State Geological Survey. In 1837 Hall became a district geologist himself, and then State Paleontologist, and he remained devoted to the work of the Survey for the rest of his long life.

Hall married Susan Aiken, the daughter of a Troy lawyer, in 1838. She died in 1895, only three years before Hall. They had been married for 57 years. Four children survived them.

Professional. From his professional beginnings, James Hall was associated with New York geology, and after 1843 with the State Geological Survey in particular. Hall, however, did study areas outside of New York, and, in fact, was briefly State Geologist of Iowa and, later, of Wisconsin. Hall’s work greatly influenced the course of American geology. His major contributions were to apply detailed paleontologic studies to the physical stratigraphic column in order to solve long-argued problems in Paleozoic correlation. The impact of his work affected geological studies across the United States and Canada and even to Europe. Also, in 1859 Hall originated the concept that mountain systems were derived from slowly sinking basins that filled with sediments (later named geosynclines by J.D. Dana), a concept that proved to be one of the main explanations of mountain building for 100 years. Hall’s work was recognized everywhere. He was an officer and a prominent member of several geological societies in the United States as well as Europe. Most noteworthy perhaps was his presidency of AAAS in 1856 and his presidency of the then just-formed American Geological Society in 1889.

Role as a Founder. Hall was in his 70s during the decade of the 1880s, which culminated with organization of GSA. The main voices in the efforts to organize and American geological society from 1881 to 1888 belonged to younger geologists. But such efforts benefited greatly by the support of recognized “elder statesmen” in the geological profession. Hall was at the Ithaca meeting in 1888 and was honored by being elected as the first President of GSA (and the only President under GSA’s first-year name, The American Geological Society).


Eckel, E.B., 1982, The Geological Society of America: Life history of a learned society: Geological Society of America Memoir 155, 168 p.

Fairchild, H.L., 1932, The Geological Society of America, 1888-1930; A chapter in earth-science history: Geological Society of America, 232 p.

Mirsky, A., 1988, The Founding of The Geological Society of America: A Retrospect on its Centennial Birthday, 1888-1988: Geological Society of America, 60 p.

Stevenson, J.J., 1898, Memoir of James Hall: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 10, p. 425-436.