History of the Kansas Geological Survey

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Table of Contents



1541 to 1864

First Survey

1864 and 1865


Finally Persuaded

Starting Over

From Haworth to Moore

R. C. Moore

Post-World War II

1960s and 1970s




1989 marks the centennial of the Kansas Geological Survey's location at the University of Kansas. That anniversary is a particularly appropriate time to complete and publish a history of the Geological Survey and its activities. The Survey was established at the University of Kansas (KU) in 1889, with the expressed purpose of making "a complete geological survey of the state of Kansas, giving special attention to any and all natural products of economic importance." For 100 years, the Kansas Geological Survey has been doing just that. In fact, the Survey's history reaches beyond those 100 years to the early geologic reconnaissance in Kansas, followed by the time of more detailed exploration during territorial days. The story then moves to creation of the first geological survey of Kansas in 1864, an important precedent in state-funded science in Kansas. The 1864 Survey, and its successor in 1865, were instrumental in establishing and synthesizing much of the early information about Kansas geology.

The period from 1865 to 1889 was a time of interruption in the Survey's existence, and yet it was a particularly important period in the state's geologic exploration, with the discovery of vertebrate fossils in western Kansas and the rise of a variety of mineral industries throughout the state. Thus, while there was no survey during that 24-year period, it is a time that deserves discussion, at least in part because events within that period influenced the creation of the Survey that followed. In 1889, a new incarnation of the Survey was founded at the University of Kansas, a decision by the Kansas legislature that had, and continues to hold, profound consequences for the character of the Survey.

The Survey's history since 1889 is filled with a long cast of characters. Some, such as Samuel Wendell Williston and Raymond C. Moore, were scientists of ultimate reputation within their fields. Others are less famous in the scientific community, but at least as readily recognized within the state and state government. Nearly all of those Survey staff members, and especially their leaders, have struggled, at one point or another, with defining the Survey's role (and thus their own role) within the scientific community, within the University, and within state government. Is the Survey simply a state agency, designated to provide information and service in matters related to geology? Clearly that is something of the Survey's role, though it is certainly not its overriding mission. Is the Survey a research organization whose staff are interested only in developing geologic-related research tools and techniques, along with new information, but operating under the university code of "publish or perish?" Again, that is clearly part of the Survey's function--or perhaps more accurately, that is a function of part of the Survey--but that is not all that the Survey is about.

A high-ranking KU administrator once remarked that the Survey was a state agency when it was convenient to be a state agency, and a division of the University when it was convenient to be a division of the University. That overstates the case. The pressures to provide statewide service are always present, though the amount of pressure changes with the issues of the day. When ground water or radioactive-waste disposal become hot political topics, the Survey is forced into the debate regardless of its predilection. By the same token, the Survey must report to University administrators and must consistently work within the University guidelines. KU's chancellor is, after all, the ex officio director of the Survey.

The combination of the Survey's location within the University and the statutory requirement that the Survey investigate geologic resources and report on those resources, almost guarantees a certain dichotomy of roles for the organization. On one hand, the Survey must carry on research, publish the results, and aid in education to legitimately fulfill its role as a part of the University. On the other hand, the pressures of the state's legislature and its citizenry often dictate that the Survey focus on providing information and service in ways that require no research, no new approaches to problems. That dichotomy, and how the Survey has chosen to deal with it, are responsible for much of the story of the past 100 years. At times, particularly during of World War II and the decade thereafter, the balance was on the side of service. Nearly all of the Survey's staff concentrated on work that might provide more information about war-related resources. At other times, the balance shifted toward work that had a less immediate application, but far more scientific import.

Because the pressures of the world outside the Survey were important in determining what the Survey did, the following history cannot be simply about the Survey. The organization has always been influenced by the needs of the society around it. As a result, this history reflects the contemporary issues, particularly those issues that eventually affected the Survey and its direction. At times those outside forces were economic. In the Survey's early days, its existence depended on the state's economy. Funding levels varied according to the health of the state's economy. Later, its existence probably depended on the role that mineral industries played within the state's economy: as mineral industries became more important in the state, so did the need for information about geology. In the latter part of the 20th century, environmental issues and water demanded equal attention and therefore influenced the organization. Thus, the following history attempts to set events at the Survey, and in the wider realm of geology in Kansas, in the larger context of society and science. It goes beyond a simple internal history of the Kansas Geological Survey. Instead, it is the story of an organization set within the state, within the University, and, to a far lesser extent, within the country and world.

Moreover, the purpose of this history is not simply to document the events and the people at the Survey, though that may be part of the result. While this book commemorates an anniversary, it tries to avoid becoming a celebration (see Greene, 1985). The purpose, instead, is to evaluate the scientific significance of those events and people and to use the results of analysis to define, and thus to help clarify, the scientific character of the organization. Staff members at today's Survey continue to be caught up in the tension between the requirements of research and service. In fact, that dichotomy between research and service so permeates affairs at the Survey that it is sometimes difficult to discern. Like the sun that rises every morning, the dichotomy is generally not remarked upon. Part of the purpose of this book is to point out that such a dichotomy does exist, and that it has historical roots. Raising the historical consciousness of Survey staff members, of people associated with the Survey, and perhaps of many of the geologists in Kansas, is another of the book's purposes, though it is probably least likely to succeed. Finally, this book should provide some sense of guidance from the past--which Survey programs and ideas were successful, which were not, and how they came about.

This book owes its existence to a number of people, some of whom I have met and others I have not. When I arrived at the Survey in 1978, I ran across an open-file manuscript by Walter Schoewe that was designed to be a history to commemorate the 100 years since the first Survey was founded in 1864. For whatever reasons, that book was never published, though it was the only written account of the organization, and was constantly drawn upon by staff members who were interested in the background of the organization for which they worked. Schoewe's history, like this one, concentrated on the Survey's early years. Unlike the following discussion, it said virtually nothing about the time from R. C. Moore on, giving little treatment to much of the 20th century. Schoewe's history marked the beginning of my work, and I am indebted to him. Similarly, I am indebted to Grace Muilenburg, whom I have met. Grace wrote reams about Kansas geology in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; she often wrote with an historic consciousness that is as helpful as it is rare. Because of that consciousness, and because of her dexterity with words, I asked Grace to write the book's foreword. She graciously agreed, and I am indebted to her for the skillful contribution. Perhaps most of all, this book owes its existence to William W. Hambleton, the Survey's director when I was hired, who encouraged my work on the project. William Hambleton thought much about the past, and gained perspective from it. I appreciate the help of Lee Gerhard, Hambleton's successor, who allowed me to complete this book. Janice Sorensen, the Survey's librarian and archivist, helped track down elusive references and photographs and was the spark behind the idea of the cover photograph. John Charlton reproduced many of the photographs. The staff at the University of Kansas archives at the Spencer Research Library were patiently helpful and allowed us endless access to their material. I appreciate the assistance from any number of people who read all or parts of the manuscript, including Hambleton, Gerhard, Don Steeples, Chris Maples, John Doveton, Lawrence Skelton, Marla Adkins-Heljeson, and Howard O'Connor, all of the Kansas Geological Survey, as well as Clifford Nelson of the U.S. Geological Survey and Daniel Merriam of Wichita State University. Dan Merriam also supplied several of the photographs. Finally, I would like to express appreciation to John Dahlquist, of Arkansas College, and Ronald Numbers, of the University of Wisconsin--Madison, for their patient and encouraging teaching.

Of course, I am responsible for any factual errors that remain in the book. I am also responsible for any of the judgments made. In this book, I made little attempt to assess the correctness of long-ago scientific theories, compared to today's interpretation of geological observations. In part, that is because I lack the geological background to make such judgments. It is also because there is no certainty about today's interpretations (and there are already plenty of books about today's ideas). What's more, it strikes me as both unfair and beside the point to judge yesterday's geologists by today's methods, standards, and ideas (see Rudwick, 1985). I attempted to contrast only those theories that were contemporary, and to make judgments not based on who was later proved right or proved wrong. Instead, I attempted to make judgments about the scientific (and in some instances, political) significance of past events, trying to determine which were important and which were not, and to provide some of the basis for that judgment. Such judgments are always difficult, but particularly so when they occur within the recent past. This book may seem weighted toward the late 1800s and the first half of the twentieth century; if so, it is the result of the proximity of time.

Perhaps the significance of relatively recent events can be sorted out more ably in another 100 years. In the meantime, this book is meant to contribute to the understanding of an institution's history. If it casts some light on the Survey's past, on the history of geologic study in Kansas, or on state-supported science in Kansas, it will have achieved its purpose.

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Web version February 2003. Original publication date 1989.