1891 Alexander Winchell

Alexander Winchell

Initial Second Vice-President and Active Founder (sources: Winchell, 1892a, 1892b; Fairchild, 1932).

Personal.  Alexander Winchell was born in the town of Northeast, New York, on December 31, 1824, and died of heart disease in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on February 19, 1891. His father, Horace Winchell, was descended from an Englishman who settled in Windsor, Connecticut, in 1635.  His mother, Caroline McAlister of Northeast, was of Scotch-Irish ancestry.

Alexander Winchell was the first-born son, and he benefited greatly in his early education by the fact that both his father and mother were teachers in the town’s public schools.  In 1840, at 16 years of age, he was determined to be a teacher and, with his father’s help, obtained a position in a district school. He taught while continuing studies until 1842, when he entered the Amenia Seminary.  Here he took his first course in geology, receiving a diploma in 1844.  He then enrolled at Wesleyan University at Middletown, Connecticut, still finding time to teach while studying for a degree, which he received in 1847.  He earned an M.A. degree in 1850.

From 1847 to 1853 Winchell taught in several academies or seminaries in New Jersey, New York, and most importantly, in Alabama.  His geologic studies in Alabama brought him an offer from the University of Michigan in 1853, where he became Professor of Physics and Civil Engineering, changing the next year to Geology, Zoology, and Botany.  He remained at the University (1853 to 1873 and 1879 to 1891) and was for part of that time the Director of the Michigan Geological Survey (1859 to 1861 and 1869 to 1871).  During his absence from the University of Michigan (1873 to 1879), Winchell was Chancellor and Professor of Geology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.  He returned to Michigan as Professor of Geology and Paleontology and remained there until his death.

Alexander Winchell married the music teacher at Amenia Seminary, Julia F. Lines of Utica, New York, on December 5, 1849.  She and two of their six children survived him.

Professional.  Alexander Winchell was a noted geologist, educator, and administrator.  As a geologist, he initially made significant contributions to understanding the Cretaceous of Alabama, but his chief work was the paleontological and stratigraphical studies that defined the Michigan Basin and the salt- and petroleum-bearing strata therein, as well as later studies of the Archean rocks of the Lake Superior region.  As an educator, he made major contributions in popularizing geology and science in his drive to have geology included as part of pre-college curricula and to present geology so that the general public, including legislators, could understand it.  Both as a geologist and as an educator, he supported evolution as a valid concept and one which could be reconciled with religion.  Alexander Winchell was one of the group of geologists headed by his younger brother, Newton, who in January 1888 established the American Geologist, the first distinctively geological journal since 1814.

Role as a Founder.  Alexander Winchell was among the first of the active founders to propose the establishment of an American geological society and, more than anyone else, saw the effort through to its successful conclusion.  At the August 1881 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Cincinnati, it was Alexander, along with his brother, who led the discussion about the desirability of organizing an independent American geological society.  After some years during which the idea was tabled, Alexander chaired the reactivated organizing committee that met in August 1888 at the AAAS meeting in Cleveland and approved the idea of a new society.  He continued as chairman of this committee during the succeeding months, culminating in the December meeting in Ithaca when the new society was formally approved and officers elected.  Alexander continued another year as chairman of the committee to revise the constitution.  Truly, Alexander Winchell could be considered the father of GSA, if anyone should be so acknowledged.  He also served GSA as the initial Second Vice-President (1889–1890) and as President (1891), though he did not live to complete his term.