Paper No. 3
Presentation Time: 8:30 AM


BOURGEOIS, Joanne, Earth & Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-1310,

Who put a hand-sketched picture of his mule in a formal report, under the heading “Ways and Means”? In GSA’s 125th year, it is a “no-brainer” to recognize geology giant G.K. Gilbert, whose fundamental work has influenced many subdisciplines in earth sciences, with the most lasting contributions in physiography and surface processes. Many fertile concepts can be attributed to Gilbert, but his real legacy is as a role model who exhibited keen curiosity, careful observation, intellectual rigor and clear exposition. What’s more, Gilbert was kind, generous and self-effacing.

Gilbert was part of a new breed of US-trained geoscientists who conducted systematic scientific exploration of western North America without European-oriented training. Gilbert noted the “effect of vivid western facts in freeing a philosophic-minded inquirer from domination by orthodox eastern theory.” He was the right person in the right place at the right time.

One of the original six geologists in the USGS (est. 1879), Gilbert was a prolific scientist best known for his multi-disciplinary monographs on the Henry Mountains, Lake Bonneville, and Transportation of Debris by Running Water. Other topics in his top-ten cited works include studies of hydraulic-mining debris, lake-shore topography, lunar craters, hilltop convexity, arid lands, sedimentary measurement of time, and geology in the Basin & Range region. Gilbert’s 1886 Presidential Address to the American Society of Naturalists promoted the method that came to be known as “multiple working hypotheses,” a method he also later promoted with his examination of Coon Butte. Gilbert was also co-author of a high-school textbook on Physical Geography (1902ff).

In the later 19th century, Gilbert made major contributions to creating a rich scientific and cultural community in Washington, D.C., including instrumental work in putting on the 1891 International Geological Congress. He was involved in founding the Cosmos Club, Geological Society of America (only person twice President) and National Geographic Society. It’s clear he was more comfortable in the field, but he took on many administrative duties both at the USGS and in professional societies. Our community has benefited immeasurably from his life and contributions.