Many geologists know that Clarence King was the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey; many of us know parts of the story of his survey of the 40th Parallel and his success in demonstrating, in his 22 months as USGS director, the value of both applied and basic geoscience research. Some of us have heard that his personal life was a bit unconventional, at least by 19th century standards. Martha Sandweiss’s meticulously researched Passing Strange tells the story behind the story in a dense but almost novel-like 300 pages.

Sandweiss, a professor of history at Princeton University,...

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