Paper No. 5
Presentation Time: 9:00 AM


BAKER, Victor R., Department of Hydrology and Water Resources, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721-0011,

Best known for the Spokane Flood Controversy 1920s, and winner of the 1979 GSA Penrose Medal, J (no period) Harlen Bretz (1882-1981) was the consummate field geologist. He published his first glacial geology paper in 1904, and then began work as a high-school teacher, first in Michigan, then in Seattle. His summer field studies of glacial geology in the Puget Lowland were so impressive that he was admitted to the University of Chicago, where T. C. Chamberlin (1843-1928) and R. D. Salisbury (1858-1922) supervised his Ph.D. dissertation. Joining the Chicago faculty in 1914, “Doc” Bretz always displayed a scientific curiosity about the natural world, a limitless drive to understand it, and a meticulous methodology to explain it. Relishing controversy, he had a stubbornness and combative nature that sometimes infuriated intellectual adversaries. Nevertheless, his unique personality ultimately proved critical during the famous debates over the catastrophic flood origin of the Channeled Scabland that he had proposed in 1923. Following formal retirement from Chicago in 1947, Bretz continued to teach a much-admired geology field course, while also initiating a new research program on the origin of limestone caves. He was ardent critic of water dousing, a proponent of William Morris Davis’s theory of limestone cavern formation, and a defender of Davis’s model for landscape evolution, which was being criticized in the 1960s by advocates of steady-state models. Right or wrong, Doc Bretz always followed where he thought the geological evidence led him, defending to all comers his assessment of that destination. The “J” (no period) of his given name (he actually made it up to put on the title page of his Ph.D. dissertation) continues to be emblematic of both his combative nature and his unique sense of humor. For nearly seven decades Doc Bretz was able to relish correcting students, editors, colleagues, and adversaries for erroneously inserting a superfluous period.