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‘A great engine of research’—G. K. Gilbert and the U.S. Geological Survey

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January 01, 1980

Grove Karl Gilbert served with the U.S. Geological Survey for 39 yr, from its inception in 1879 until his death in 1918. Thanks to his reputation as an explorer and to his friendship with John Wesley Powell, Gilbert occupied many administrative positions—chief of the Division of the Great Basin, chief of the Appalachian Division, chief geologist (1888–1892), and head of the section on physiographic geology. Gilbert was responsible for establishing the first hydraulic laboratory in the Survey, served on numerous committees to set cartographic nomenclature and style, supervised a series of correlation essays, represented the Survey at some international congresses, advised Powell on practically all matters relating to Survey administration, oversaw bibliographic compilations, edited manuscripts, and, in general, set an example for scientific “investigators” who did not wish to be teachers.

Identifying his career with the Survey brought both rewards and costs. Gilbert’s opportunities for research dried up; nearly all studies were done on his own time and at his own expense. His major work of this period was Lake Bonneville, and he tried to follow it with similar works on the Great Lakes and lunar maria. But lacking time and support for full studies, he investigated instead the processes of scientific thought itself in several important methodological essays. The Survey nonetheless gave this nonacademician a responsible job, brought him into a social environment which he enjoyed, and ultimately returned him to the field at age 62 for some of his finest work, the hydraulic mining studies in California.

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GSA Special Papers

The Scientific Ideas of G. K. Gilbert

Ellis L. Yochelson
Ellis L. Yochelson
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Geological Society of America
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January 01, 1980



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