2014 GSA Annual Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia (19–22 October 2014)

Paper No. 160-12
Presentation Time: 4:00 PM


OLSEN, Joshua E.S., Department of Geology and Environmental Science, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260-3332 and LENCZEWSKI, Melissa, Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, Northern Illinois University, Davis Hall 312, DeKalb, IL 60115

In 1917, after USA’s entrance into the First World War, renowned geologist and GSA President R.A.F. Penrose wrote this brief brochure to commanding officers in the American military. Under a specially formed committee created in Jan., 1917 to assess the utility of geologists in war, called the Geology and Paleontology Committee of the National Research Council (NRC), Penrose wrote in layman terms about the many ways geologists could be used on the frontlines in the theatre of war. While Britain had been using geologists in front and rear echelon duties, for the first time US military strategists, who were typically unaware what geologists did beyond looking for oil and minerals, could see how to implement these pre-trained mountain-men. American geologists were soon brought to war to aid with the engineering of battlefield infrastructure such as roads, camp sanitation, and artillery emplacements, but also in military reconnaissance.

Penrose had a prestigious genealogy dating back centuries in Britain and till the 18thcentury in America and was himself born in the tumultuous Civil War era which undoubtedly built a strong nationalism in his heart. This, coupled with his industrious rigor, likely led him to become active in the NRC and to utilize his power in the GSA to accomplish the joint cooperation achieved in the Geology and Paleontology Committee. Indeed, Penrose must have also kept up on the successes of British geologists in the War. With the committee’s persistence, 10 geologists were sent to war shortly after US entrance to aid with all of the tasks Penrose professed about.

In 1942, 25 years after Penrose’s work, again through initiative of the civilian geological community, the Military Geology Unit (MGU) was commissioned to serve in WWII. The duties of this unit were, as one might expect, almost a carbon copy of what Penrose explained in his missive to commanding officers in WWI. At the formation of the unit, the staff numbered at a mere 10 persons, but near the end of the war the unit had grown to almost 160 members. Unlike similar programs in UK and Germany, the MGU continued to serve in peacetime faculties until it was disbanded in 1972 at which time its duties were passed on to either the USGS or the US DoD. The use of American geologists in war and peace continues to this day, serving as yet another lasting legacy of R.A.F. Penrose.

  • WhatAGeologistCanDoInWar-Presentation.pptx (14.5 MB)