Paper No. 6
Presentation Time: 9:15 AM


LANDING, Ed, New York State Museum, 222 Madison Avenue, Albany, NY 12230,

Ever the devoted natural historian, James Hall grew up in coastal Massachusetts and published a book on marine shells at age eleven. The son of a textile mill supervisor, his college degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY, a pre-eminent scientific institution, led in 1835 to his becoming an RPI chemistry professor—a position he retained through his life. Hall’s geological career began in 1836 when the New York State Geological and Natural History Survey was created and given four years to document the state’s natural history and economic potential. Hall worked on the northeastern district’s geology, but underperformed in an area dominated by Proterozoic “hard rocks.” Reassigned in Fall 1836 to western NY, he educated himself in Paleozoic rocks and fossils and saw the potential for biostratigraphic correlation across America and into Europe. His final report (1842) on western NY presaged his Palaeontology of New York. He thought the Palaeontology required one volume and a year’s work, but this Lower–Middle Paleozoic masterpiece bulked up to 13 volumes completed in the interval 1847–1894. Hall brought scientific renown to Albany and built an early State Museum, but his low salary, equivalent to a railroad engineer’s, was even withheld from 1849 through 1857. Thus, Hall “consulted,” and was paid for a geological survey of Iowa, wrote the paleontology of the “Indian Territories” (Utah), did a Quebec graptolite study, and sold collections (which became the basis for the AMNH). The money was used for publication and research activity and to pay assistants. Never a local scientist, he did the first trans-continental cross-section of the U.S. (1852), and in this way presaged the founding of the U.S.G.S. and Smithsonian—which were staffed by such disgruntled ex-Hall employees as C.D. Walcott and F.B. Meek. Besides his invaluable reviews of Paleozoic life and its paleoenvironments and being a co-founder of the GSA, Hall’s legacy includes the geosynclinal theory (1857), a long-standing precursor of plate tectonics, and a non-creationist, mobile Earth theory (1860) that concluded that mountain belts rose and were eroded away through geologic time. Hall never adopted evolutionary theory, and understood continental glaciation only after hosting Louis Agassiz’s New York travel.