George W. Bain

Samuel A. Hitchcock Professor of Mineralogy and Geology, Emeritus
Interviewed on December 22, 1977

Audio file

Subject coverage

  • Benjamin Kendall Emerson '65:
    • As a student
    • Joins Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity
    • Desire to study in Germany
    • Travels with George D. Pratt '93
  • Difference in faculty: 1926 and 1970's
  • Reasons for Professor Bain's coming to Amherst College
  • Origin of Geology as a subject of study
  • Graduate study in Geology
  • Edward Hitchcock:
    • As a pioneer geologist
    • Field trips
    • Collecting reptilian tracks
    • As savior of the college
  • Frederic Brewster Loomis '96:
    • Interest in fossil vertebrates
    • Field trips and their financial support
  • George W. Bain's activities:
    • Field work in Ontario and with the Vermont Marble Company
    • Newfoundland project
    • Beginning of interest in atomic materials
    • Desire to conduct field work in Africa
    • Knowledge of African resources
    • Association with the Atomic Energy Commission
    • Teaching under five Amherst presidents
  • Students entering careers in Geology
  • Comments on 1947 "New Curriculum"
  • B. K. Emerson's retirement


[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and may contain errors and omissions.]

George W. Bain, Professor of Geology, Emeritus 
Tape #1 
December 22, 1977 
Grosvenor House 
Horace W. Hewlett 
For: Amherst College 

HWH: George, you indicated a moment ago that you thought it would be worthwhile to record B.K. Emerson’s influence as a member of the faculty at Amherst. Would you like to start with that? 

GWB: Emerson was still quite facile in getting around and remembering things when we arrived here. 

HWH: That was 1926. 

GWB: And we used to call on the Emersons on Sunday afternoon and have tea in the old-fashioned custom. Emmy told us many stories about his arrival at Amherst and how he came to go abroad for his studies. Some of these were confirmed in some letters that I found in a copy of The Geology of Massachusetts with the inscription in the front. Dr. B. K. Emerson. This wasn’t B. K. Emerson, Professor, this was M.D., his father. So that these records, which are in the nature of sagas, are really confirmed in part by writing and have been deposited in the Amherst Archives. 

Emerson arrived here in the autumn of 1861, a very poor boy. Apparently the medical profession didn’t pay then as it does now, and he was assigned a room on the top floor in the northeast corner of North Dorm, popularly known as Ultima Thule. He used to eat many of his meals in his room according to his account. Came the six-week marking grade, which was a very serious time in those days, and three or four days later he was waited on in his room by all the big wheels on campus. They said they would like to take him out to dinner and he said, well, he couldn’t afford to buy a meal. And they said, Oh, no, this was as their guest. So he went along with them; they seemed like a very nice bunch of young men and when he arrived back at his room, he found he’d been pledged to Alpha Delta Phi. I should say that at that time, Hitchcock was the mentor for Alpha Delta Phi and Seelye for Psi U, the two fraternities on the campus. 

The next morning, Emerson woke up and the grades were posted for the results of the six-week tests and at the head of the list was B. K. Emerson. Apparently for desirability in those days it was very important to have high grades as well as to be good in debating and other activities. Also faculty of influence were not above aiding undergraduates in the rushing scheme. 

HWH: Well there were real campus insurrections of who was going to be the speaker, you know, and Psi U and Alpha Delt vied for that constantly. 

GWB: So that is how Emerson came to be an Alpha Delta Phi, according to his own account. Time came for graduation, and this is in a letter found in this large volume of The Geology of Massachusetts by Hitchcock, and Emerson had written it to his father — these were the letters to his father: 

“My dear Dr. Emerson: (very formal) 
I will be graduating in four weeks and Professor Harris tells me that he thinks I should go abroad for further study. It will cost approximately $2,000. I would be willing to enter into an insurance agreement so that if anything happens to me, you will not lose any of this money. 
Your loving son, 
Benjamin Kendall Emerson” 

I have never seen the answer to this letter, but the next one that is in this same volume was to the effect that he was very sorry that he (his father) could not see his way to loan him the two thousand dollars and he had an opportunity to teach for the next year at the munificent sum of $300 and keep at Groton. Everybody on the faculty thought that it would be so much better if he could go abroad. Your loving son, Benjamin Kendall Emerson. 

All this was in 1865. 

HWH: I think it’s interesting, George, that you said Professor Harris suggested this, and I assume that was Elijah Paddock Harris of biology. 

GWB: Biology and chemistry 

HWH: Yes, biology and chemistry. You’re right — it was largely chemistry. It was chemistry in which he was heading young Mr. Emerson at that time. 

GWB: That is correct. The next letter was from Hamburg, Germany, describing his trip across and that he was having difficulty with his German. So apparently, Dr. Emerson saw fit to finance his son’s studies at Goettingen in Germany. When I arrived at Amherst, the hood in the mineralogy lab had a drawing of the German professor laying down the laboratory law at Goettingen. That was lost in the move to Pratt. He then returned in 1869 and joined the faculty at Amherst. One of his early attainments was to start the Science Club. 

I recall a meeting during my first year here when Professor Hopkins (chemistry) was addressing the Club and Emmy was in the front row. Suddenly, from him, “Speak up young man. I can’t hear you.” And Hoppy was only a few years from retirement! 

HWH: My records show, not to disagree with you, that he joined Amherst in 1870, became a full professor in 1872, and Samuel Hitchcock Professor in 1873, which seemed to me remarkable. I wondered if the President and his peers recognized him as an unusual young man. 

GWB: Well, it was very unusual for a young man to go to Germany to study in those days. You had to be very high academically in your group; originally, in the old mineralogy lab, in what is now the Biology Building, there used to be a picture of the class of students with their professor in chemistry on the hood on the east wall — or what stood for a hood in the laboratory ventilation system. I’m trying to think of the name of the German chemistry professor, I know it’s just in the back of my mind, but it was chemistry that he studied there. When he came back, and this was in the day when they were trying to get the elements organized into a system, Mendelceff came up with a Periodic Table; Emerson came up with the chemica helix, where the chemical elements were on a spiral, with the similar electron charges going down vertically and the electron rings in the spiral.

HWH: This was his own hypothesis in competition in a way with...

GWB: Mendelceff in St. Petersburg. An interesting event in Emerson’s middle years was when he read his own obituary in the New York papers. He was in a train wreck near Poughkeepsie during the mid 1890’s and anyone less would have departed hence, but he recovered and was given a sabbatic year. This was shortly after George D. Pratt graduated. Now, father Charles admired the fact that son George could kick a football out-of-bounds between the five-yard line and goal from almost any place inside the mid-field stripe, but he questioned academic attainments of this perfection. So when Emmy was ambulatory, the two A.D.’s were sent on a trip around the world, with general tutoring expected to equal touring, such being the general fund of information held by professors of that day. It was an expensive trip for father Charles because many notable mineral specimens in the collection date from that time. 

HWH: For goodness sake! We can come back to B. K. because there’s much more I’d like to talk about. 

GWB: I think it was 1869 he finished in Germany. I don’t know what year he became Professor here. 

HWH: I went through the catalogue and he was first listed as an instructor in 1870-’71. I was amazed that he had advanced so rapidly, even to holding a “name” chair three years later. Just incredible.

You came, as we said earlier, in 1926. Others who came that year were King Turgeon, Dwight Salmon, Bill Clark, Gail Kennedy. My thought really was about the difference between the faculty then when you entered, and the faculty now. It was much smaller, of course, the College was smaller and it seems to me it was quite a bit more disciplined by disciplines than it is now. 

GWB: It was a very different faculty. It was a faculty that was in transition from the earlier period of Emerson and Harris and their ilk who taught because they could not help teaching, to the one today that I would characterize as a faculty that comes because of the salary. 

HWH: With no strong commitment. 

GWB: No strong commitments for Amherst or to the subject they’re teaching. 

HWH: I was interested, too, that when you came B.K. had retired in 1917 and Professor Frederick Loomis was, I believe, the Geology Department when you arrived at Amherst. You were a two-man department for many years. 

GWB: It was a one-man department up to then. Although Emerson and Loomis usually had an assistant, many of whom became very very distinguished geologists. John M. Clarke for example became head of the New York State Museum and Survey. 

HWH: And you indicated that at that time John Mason Clarke of the Class of 1877 later became president of the Geological Society of America 

GWB: That’s right.

HWH: Along with Whitman Cross 

GWB: Who lived down on East Street. His home was down near where you were, at one time. 

HWH: Well, he was an 1875 graduate, was president of the Geological Society in 1918. And then you listed James F. Kemp of the Class of ‘81. 

GWB: Who was the reason for me coming to Amherst. 

HWH: How was that? 

GWB: I had been a rather independent cuss at McGill and in my thesis I’d been told it was all wrong and I had to change it and I said, well I would change it if I was shown where it was wrong. My mentor was H. C. Cooke, from the Geological Survey of Canada, head of the department the next year. I was called into the Dean’s Office. There I was told that unless I could settle my differences with Dr. Cooke, he wouldn’t sign my degree. And I said, well, I have to be shown where I’m wrong. So I went without my degree and Dr. Cooke was not reappointed. The next year the same typed copy went in for my degree, and I got it. In the meantime I’d gone to Columbia, arrived there the twelfth of October, after coming from the Canadian Arctic, and I called on Professor Kemp whom I had heard lecture, and was greatly impressed by his friendliness, his insight into geology, and I said I wanted to study. And he said, well, what year would you like to come? I said “NOW!” So he said Well! It’s 11:30 and registration closes at 12. He picked up the telephone and called Dean Woodbridge and said, “Woodbridge, I am sending over a young man. He’ll take this course, this course, this course, and this course.”

HWH: This was entering Columbia? That Dean Woodbridge was the Amherst F. E. Woodbridge? 

GWB: Yes, the famous old writer of “Hymn of Amherst” and other things, “Paiges Horse”, and the rest of them. 

HWH: And a trustee for so many years. And it was through his influence that you even heard of Amherst? 

GWB: Through Kemp. The Geological Society met at Amherst the year I was in this trouble at McGill, and I thought it was Amherst, Nova Scotia. I’d never heard of Amherst, Massachusetts. Well Kemp oversaw my many troubles and applied what corrective guidance that he could, and ultimately determined, without telling me, that I was coming to Amherst. 

HWH: You told me the other day that you learned you had the appointment at Amherst from Professor... 

GWB: Professor Raymond Moore at the University of Kansas. 

HWH: Getting back to your early years here — 

GWB: Well, it was a small faculty when I joined it, and very personal. Except for the Classics, very few departments had more than two members. And this was the first time that Geology had had two fully staffed members. It was the first year it was acceptable as a science. Previous to that it had been purely elective. 

HWH: I noticed in the yearly catalogues, back into the 1840s, that Geology was offered as a course in the senior year only. A little later in the fifties... 

GWB: It never got down into the sophomore year until after I was here. 

HWH: I wondered in those early days if Geology was an accepted discipline among colleges generally, or did it here reflect the strong influence of Edward Hitchcock? 

GWB: I think that many of the large colleges had it as a regular subject from about 1870 on, when the West was opened. It was partly the glamour of the West and partly the spirit of independence of the New World. The northern peninsula of Michigan had been opened up as a big copper area in 1843 and was now supplying all the copper that was needed in the Americas, actually exporting it. The steel business was starting in, at Bethlehem and Pittsburgh, Fort Duquesne. It was a time when it came to be necessary to have people who understood rocks, and many of them became loyal supporters of the finances of the universities. 

HWH: So it was a very practical area to study. 

GWB: Yes, I think that Arthur Curtiss James never paid much attention to his geology, but he was a great supporter of old “Emmy” and I think probably he took his advice on a lot of things. 

HWH: Do you know when Geology became a subject for graduate study in the United States? I know it did in Europe before it did here, by many years. 

GWB: I think the earliest that it became a major or graduate study here was probably around 1900, because Adams at McGill and Bancroft at McGill both went abroad in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, but they were leaders. Yale had it as an adjunct of chemistry largely under Silliman and then the Dana family. And Harvard had it as a popular course under Shaler. At Columbia it was under the School of Mines — Professor Newberry whom Kemp followed. Wisconsin under Van Hise, and Chicago, under Chamberlin developed good staffs. The University of California likewise produced some great contributors during the nineteenth century. 

HWH: Well Hitchcock had established, I would guess, a national reputation, perhaps international, even in his times in mid-nineteenth century or a little later. 

GWB: He was known throughout Europe and his textbook went through twenty-some editions. 

HWH: Then it must have been a good book. 

GWB: It was a good one. I would prefer Lyell, but it was good as a compact thing. It was weighted in favor of the Biblical account and he never accepted glaciation as expounded by Agassiz at Harvard. 

HWH: Well Amherst I think was very proud, too, at least the catalogues show it, of the collections they had accumulated. 

GWB: The collections were outstanding. 

HWH: And did those have some influence on... Let me put it another way: Were these used as teaching devices at that time, rather than field trips? 

GWB: They were used as teaching devices but Hitchcock always ran field trips. For example, one of his field trips went to the top of Mount Holyoke when during a great flood in the Connecticut Valley, students watched the Connecticut River break through and cut off the Ox-Bow. And Hitchcock started Mountain Day where he would go out and re-name various places. For example, the old Titan’s Pier used to be the Devil’s Dock. He didn’t like such unscriptural words and so he called it Titan’s Piazza. He named many of the hills. 

HWH: I know there was a great ruckus of his trying to rename Mt. Toby to an Indian name and the citizens would have nothing of it. 

GWB: He did run those trips. He also ran trips as far afield as Vermont. One of the groups took shelter in a cave up above East Dorset and the wind whistled through the cave and so he named it Mt. Aeolus, God of the Winds. 

HWH: I think it’s remarkable that Hitchcock was such a capable man. I believe he did not have a College degree himself. And as President, particularly of the College, it’s my understanding he looked on geology as much to magnify God as he did for the science of the subject itself. 

GWB: I think that is true. There are some stories, how they were carried down, I’m not quite sure. They came to me again, from Emerson and Tyler, but they’re before the days of either of them. 

Back in the ‘thirties, there was a major financial depression that accompanied Shays’s Rebellion and other upsets, and the College Trustees voted to give up the Charter of the College. Well, Hitchcock, contrary to all stories otherwise, had found the footprints. There was a doctor up in Greenfield who claimed discovery, but Hitchcock’s record is in the American Journal of Science or Silliman’s Journal and a lot of other places and in the Geology of Massachusetts published in 1832. So there is no question that he found them. And this was something new. The slab on which they were found didn’t come from Massachusetts. It came from Connecticut, Middlefield, Connecticut. 

HWH: These were dinosaur tracks? 

GWB: Dinosaur tracks or reptilian tracks. It came from a doorstep at Moody’s Corner in South Hadley. The doorstep had got a little worn and saucer shaped so that the water lay there and the farmer’s wife kept upbraiding him for tracking the water and mud into the house, so he thought he’d turn the step over; he turned it over and here were these marks on the underside. Well, Hitchcock’s Geology of Massachusetts was not the geology of Hitchcock alone. He had ten thousands of assistants. He would encourage farmers to come in and bring anything that they found that was unusual in rocks. And this farmer came to Hitchcock and told him that his turkeys had made tracks on the underside of his doorstep and he didn’t see how they could have done it. Hitchcock was a little gruff at first, but he went down to Moody’s Corners and looked at it and said, “Well, those are bigger tracks than any of your turkeys could make, and also they’re not imprinted into the rock the way the turkeys would imprint them, they’re raised, they’re the cast of a mold. Where did it come from?” So they ran it down and they began to look for these tracks, all his ten thousand farmer assistants, began to look for them. And they found them up at Barton’s Cove. They found them at the track site down below Mt. Tom, and they found them at Moody’s Corner and several other places. Well, these began to attract people who came from afar to see these tracks, and in meeting Hitchcock they were of two minds and there was no hazy zone between them. There were those who thought there was nobody like Hitchcock; or there was nobody like Hitchcock, thank God! When the Trustees voted to give up the charter, Hitchcock and three others — Adams, Tuckerman and one other — went to the Trustees and said they would run the College for what they could raise. That first year, I think, Hitchcock got $400 and the others got $300. 

HWH: I know it was Hitchcock who eventually persuaded Mr. Williston to share his munificence with Amherst. So he’s credited with having rescued the College. He must have been a remarkable man. 

GWB: Well, these statements, there’s nobody like him or there’s nobody like him, thank God! really characterize the dyspeptic old guy. 

HWH: I ran across some words that were strange to me in the course offerings of what was being taught back in those early days, and one of them was Astrolithology. I assume that was the study of meteorites. 

GWB: Lithology is the study of rocks, from “lithos,” but yes, meteorites. One of the first things that Hitchcock did, after running through the first year, was to make an agreement with Shepard. 

HWH: Charles Upham Shepard, the biologist. 

GWB: Well he was a doctor, a medical doctor. But he had a wonderful mineral collection and a wonderful meteorite collection which he acquired by giving medical services to people who couldn’t pay in exchange for their finds. And the conditions were that this collection would be stored at Amherst, and he would teach mineralogy and so-called meteoritics. 

HWH: He also had a course called mineralogy and one on conchology — the shells I presume. 

GWB: The shells. But that wasn’t Shepard’s job, that was somebody else’s, I think. Incidentally, many of those shells are type-specimens after which organisms are named. And they are now down at Harvard. 

HWH: I thought it was interesting that in 1917, when B.K. retired, Professor Loomis, who had been a professor of geology and zoology, then became professor of geology only. He was known for the many field trips that he undertook all over the world. I wondered how such were financed at a time like that. 

GWB: Loomis took his graduate work at Munich in Germany. He was studying fish and amongst these, fossil fish, so that instead of being a genuine Biologist he was a Paleo-biologist. In the course of this work he found some little fossil tadpoles which later turned out to be the young of Eryops; Al Romer worked on these tadpoles and was able to show that they were the young of this early amphibian. But Loomis came back to Amherst and worked under Tyler. He was Tyler’s assistant. The two of them ran Biology. 

HWH: John Mason Tyler. 

GWB: Yes. And Loomis continued his interest in fossil vertebrates so that in 1901 and 1902 he went out with the American Museum of Natural History expeditions and collected for them. Tyler finally came to Loomis and he said: “Young man who are you working for?” And Loomis said: “Amherst College.”

“But you collect for the American Museum. Why?” 

“It costs money to run an expedition.” 

“How much?” 

“One to Nebraska might cost $300.” 

Tyler told Loomis, “Well, I have $300 in the bank that’s doing nothing. You take that $300 and you go out West. Then you find something you give it a good name and telegraph it back.” Well the name came back half Greek and half Latin in the good old Loomis style and it arrived the day of the Alumni Luncheon sometime in mid-July. Tyler got up before the Alumni and said: “Our Freddie Loomis has discovered this animal!!“ The “new” oreodon was then about as common as sheep in Montana. But in the meantime, over the summer, he discovered the big titan— other Megaceropy tyleri; the alumni passed the hat at the luncheon and when he came back there was $1,000 in it. So Tyler got his money back. Then the fall came, the Alumni wanted to see what they’d bought. Well Loomis and the then janitor, John Harlow, had it fixed up with haywire and pipe fittings, and so forth, so that it stood clear and here was this twelve-foot-long thing about eight or nine feet high; the Alumni said: “Why, Williams has nothing like this! If a trip to Nebraska and $1,000 will do this, what would $10,000 and a trip to Patagonia do?” So they financed Loomis to go to Patagonia in 1909 or ‘10 and after that time about two thirds of the trips were financed by various alumni. One of the interesting ones was, on a golf course in Florida where somebody took too big a divot and came up with a piece of elephant bone; Dwight Morrow financed Loomis of Amherst and Gidley of the National Museum (Washington) to head for Melbourne, Florida, and in the course of events, they found the Jefferson mammoth, which was the biggest fossil mammoth ever dug up. They also found a human skull. And the two of them tossed up for the first choice. Gidley won the toss and took the skull. Loomis got the mammoth as the left-over. 

HWH: The one that we have now. 

GWB: Squire Dakin financed another expedition. Various others helped. 

HWH: Arthur Hazard Dakin? 

GWB: Yes. 

HWH: I hadn’t realized that. 

GWB: Many of them, I’d say a third of the expeditions were financed by Loomis, himself. 

HWH: I know he died in 1937 up in Sitka, Alaska and I presume that was on one of his expeditions. 

GWB: No, he was on a fishing trip. For pleasure. Salmon fishing. He’d just caught a big salmon and the excitement was too much. 

HWH: I hadn’t realized that. As I told you earlier his son was in the class after me and I believe he went into Geology. 

GWB: Yes, he’s out in Golden, Colorado, I think. 

HWH: Now George, there are many other things I’m going to want to talk to you about, but one thing that I’d like to ask you now is about some of your own activity. I know you worked with the Atomic Energy Commission, you’ve worked with foreign governments, you’ve worked with corporations all over the world. Can you recall how you became involved in so many activities? 

GWB: Well, I graduated in Mining Engineering. I did not have an A.B. degree. And in the early days this was considered uneducated at Amherst. But as an engineer I felt there had to be some reality between the subject you were teaching and actual life. And so in every vacation I used to look for appointments that would improve my teaching knowledge. The year that I came here I was off in a gold mine up in Northern Ontario. After I came here, the Vermont Marble Co. took me on for ten years with various problems with stone. 

HWH: You’ve been associated with them on a number of occasions for an extensive period. How did you first become connected with them? 

GWB: The year before I came to Amherst, I was on a one-year appointment as Associate Professor of Geology at the University of Vermont. And I felt that I could not teach in Vermont unless I knew something about the local geology. So I had an appointment with the State Geologist to make a survey of an area, and the one I chose was the marble belt, and in this I met some of the Vermont Marble people and they were impressed with the ability to trace out the deposits. That summer before coming to Amherst, I was off on this northern Ontario gold project, so I could not join them then. It was agreed I would, the next year. And this was a very varied sort of work. After we had enough marble resources to keep them going indefinitely, it then became a job of studying stone properties, so as to know how it could be processed more economically, how to process it so that it would be more enduring, and identifying properties that were associated with endurance. In fact I had most of the cemetery caretakers in New England watching for chips that were knocked off monuments of definite age so that we could study the physical properties of the stone. That was one type of experience. But this gave a limited type of geological insight that I could transmit to the students. I should say that Loomis’s influence at Amherst was extremely strong, so that there was very little tendency to go into applied geology during Loomis’s lifetime, and I think we had only two men who went on in applied geology in that entire period. One was Stan Keith (‘31) who became geologist for Cerro de Pasco; the other was Fred Klaer (‘35) who has his own water-searching business out at Columbus, Ohio. After Loomis’s death, I suppose the strong influence of paleontology was out for a time, and we had at least two students per year who became very distinguished in applied geology, or geology, as it was useful to the understanding of the environment or to developing a resource or to planning engineering work. 

HWH: Your reputation obviously grew and from your beginnings with field work in Ontario and Vermont, you soon established a national reputation to the point that both this government and other governments called on you. 

GWB: Yes, I worked in the summer of 1936 up in Newfoundland for the Commission of Government there when it was a semi-colony of Great Britain. This was on marble and white pigment. They needed an internal industry and they were having great difficulty. Their total income was from codfish. 

HWH: But in recent years I think of you and Anne either coming back or going off to Australia or Indonesia... 

GWB: Well the work on atomic materials came about in a rather interesting way. During my freshman year at McGill, where I nearly went into a major in physics, Rutherford used to come back from Cambridge, England, and he would explain to us, in rather over-emphasized fashion, that a pound of radium had enough energy in it to keep the “Empress of Canada” going from Liverpool to Montreal until her bottom rusted through. Well nuclear energy didn’t take this form. But I always stayed with some interest in it, because when we went over to the chemistry department for lectures Professor Ruttan would tell us, “The atom is the indivisible particle of matter.” We were in this limbo, so to speak, between atoms breaking down and atoms immutable. It came about, through my interest in geology, that uranium was very important in dating rocks, and so I was on the early committee on the age of the earth using this approach, with “Pop” Lane who was down at Tufts. (Mrs. Rouillard was his daughter. [Clarence] Rouillard was teaching French here.) So I was in that activity. This went on until 1937 when I had very little administrative experience — Loomis ran everything — and then when he died with several potential years ahead, here I was with the administration and the teaching and very little help. Fred Phleger came in to take over the paleontology, and stratigraphy...

HWH: But you were alone for a spell weren’t you? 

GWB: No, Phleger came in before I got back from Siberia. I was away on the International Geological Congress in Russia when Loomis died. I was a couple of weeks late getting back. 

Came the War, I decided in 1940 that it was impossible for the United States to stay out of the war and it was impossible for them to go in, because there was no way they could keep their steel business going on internal supplies. So I applied for a sabbatical with the intention of going to Africa where the resources were very varied and where I had a fairly good entrée through my old Professor Bancroft. 

HWH: This would be South Africa? 

GWB: The whole of Africa. We intended to come in from the north, but we had to come in from Capetown. Well, it turned out that I couldn’t get to South Africa; we had a couple of students here whose parents were in Republic Steel. There was [Rufus] Wysor (‘42) whose father was president of Republic, and Norris Gentholts (‘41) whose father was legal counsel. Norrie was a good fellow, but not too brilliant as a student and I had a difficulty keeping him in College. His father came in during December and he thanked me for taking such good care of his boy. And I said: “Well you’ll have to get somebody else for next semester, I’m going to be on sabbatical.” He said: “Where are you going?” I said: “South America.” He said: “That’s good.” I said: “Oh no, that isn’t where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Africa and I couldn’t get there because there was no passage.” He said: “Well, we ship a lot of steel to Africa.” Three days later we had offers of passage on three ships. So we went down and in the course of that work I discovered the uranium in the gold ores of the Witwatersrand. In the Class of ‘41, was Bob Nininger; he had taken a year of geology at Harvard, had gone to work for U.S. Vanadium and was picked up by the Army; he had been working for Union Carbide in their subsidiary U.S. Vanadium; so when the Manhattan Engineer District heard he’d been working there, Groves picked him up for the resource division. Well, Nininger knew that I’d been in Shinkolobwe, all the uranium operations of the world, and had this stuff from the Witwatersrand in South Africa so he suggested that the Manhattan Engineer District second me from here; so I was moved over from the Board of Economic Warfare where I’d been advising on all of the mineral resources in Africa, to the Manhattan Engineer District. 

HWH: How did you become knowledgeable about the minerals in Africa before going there. 

GWB: Well I knew about it because Bancroft had been Professor of Economic Geology at McGill when I was there; his salary wasn’t too great and the quarters for geology were very poor, so Bancroft kicked over the traces and left; he went as General Manager of the Consolidated Mining and Smelting and Power Company, with a salary about ten times what he was getting at the University. McGill decided Bancroft was essential, so they promised him a new building. I don’t know where they were going to get it, but they promised it to him. So he came back and they didn’t give him the building.

HWH: This is McGill? 

GWB: Yes. They didn’t give him the building, so Bancroft left again to become head of the British South Africa Co. in charge of the development of Northern Rhodesia. There he found a great number of copper deposits. We were in correspondence and he had wanted me to join him during the late 1920’s. Then, when the British South Africa Company’s contract ran out, he was taken over by the Anglo-American Corporation in charge of exploration. So he was in Johannesburg. I also knew Alex DuToit who was a very famous African geologist. So I had these people who commanded me around down there. Then I’d done a job in New England on molybdenum for Harold Hochschild in the days when he was afraid that somebody was going to break in on his molybdenum monopoly. Although there is quite a little, there wasn’t enough molybdenum in New England to make any difference. He asked me what the fee would be; it had taken me a couple of weeks, and I said oh it’ll be nothing, someday I’ll want to visit some of your mines and I hope you’ll remember me. So when I found I could get to Africa, I wrote to him and he very graciously gave me a letter of recommendation. I didn’t know that in addition to being a director of Newmont Mining and a director of the British South Africa Co., he was also a director of the Union Minière du Haut Katanga. (Actually I have cast a lot of bread upon the waters-- and it is amazing how much comes back). So we just moved through Africa on a red carpet, almost.

HWH: This is interesting and from what you say I gather most of the exploration and study that you did was from contacts you made yourself with governments or corporations. Now did you get any, were there any grants coming to the Department as such? 

GWB: The only one that ever came was under the Atomic Energy Commission. I was getting into such complicated financial handling of work — a day here a day there with the Atomic Energy Commission who refused to let me go — actually much of the material is still classified — that I thought the easiest way was to let the College take a contract with the Atomic Energy Commission to do this research; that is the only one. Then I ran into trouble because I discovered a method, which is being used now by the Germans and the South Africans, to extract uranium from very dilute solutions and they refused to let me continue to work on it; so I cancelled the contract and went ahead for another year on my own. 

HWH: Were you ever tempted to devote full time to such work rather than the classroom? 

GWB: A number of times, yes. 

HWH: You worked under quite a few presidents. You were appointed by Olds, then you had Pease and Stanley King and Charlie Cole and you retired during Cal Plimpton’s administration. Does any one of those five or six presidents strike you as being more supportive of your work or science generally? 

GWB: They’re very, very different. Olds was a kindly gentleman. I think a mathematical scholar. Pease, I think, was neither an administrator nor a good president.

HWH: His heart certainly wasn’t in it. 

GWB: I don’t think he understood the problem of management. I think Stanley King was the strongest president, probably the best for Amherst. But all the time he was president he needled me unmercifully. 

HWH: Why? 

GWB: I’m not quite sure why. There were many undercurrents. At first, I think, he would have liked to get rid of me in favor of Phleger — who was Harvard. I still remember Kemp carrying me through and I felt I had to stay on at a loss. Phleger was interested in, and has contributed greatly, to only one field, and the head of a department cannot be a one-field man. I’ve taught every course that has ever been given in geology. 

HWH: Is that so? I went through the catalogue and saw the proliferation of courses. 

GWB: My policy was get the man who can do the best job in his field and then fill in the other essential ones. And I think it’s helped — helped me immensely — but it prevented me from ever becoming outstanding in any one thing. 

HWH: I would think that has its virtue, too, though. 

GWB: Well it cuts your reputation and this has had a number of disadvantages, but it improves your knowledge. Emerson was outstanding in chemistry and mineralogy, which is chemistry, and he got very high in the reputation field, actually becoming a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His students, his best students, are his early students.

HWH: That would bring me to another question. ‘You have had many students who have distinguished themselves. 

GWB: Most of mine are post-war. They’re late in my career. 

HWH: Well you have many former students who are involved in lives concerned with geology, whether it’s in mining, or exploration, or industry. 

GWB: Well, in this I had a definite policy. I felt that there were three fields: public service, teaching and industry. You could not keep the College going without somebody earning money; therefore we had to have some good men in industry, and there we have some good ones. 

HWH: You mean keep the College going, from Alumni support? 

GWB: Yes, financially. 

We’ve got two alumni who are presidents of oil companies and one who is vice president of one of the big three in oil. Walt Pusey lives in a section of Houston reserved for the high-ups but he doesn’t tell me which. Another is geologist for ARAMCO in oil. In mining we have one who is head of the prestigious Behre, Dolbear & Co. S.S. Shannon is in Grand Junction in the uranium business. We’ve got a number who are full professors. One was mineralogist for Tiffany & Co. until the family business took him away. Phil Heckel is professor at the University of Iowa and a prolific contributor. Al Bassett is professor at Rochester. Craig Black is in charge of paleontology at Carnegie Museum. Frank Whitmore is in charge of vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian. John Derr is high up in the earthquake studies of the U.S. Geological Survey. Phil Bethke is with the Geophysical Laboratory.

This is the way I felt. I would try to study a student to learn where he would be happiest and try to get him into that field. 

HWH: We were talking, too, about the influence of presidents. You had remarked on Stanley King. Charlie Cole came in, so did the Curriculum of 1947. Did your required course, “The Evolution of Earth and Man,” direct students who might otherwise not have known about geology into the field? 

GWB: Very few. But it was a liberal arts course and that gave them an idea of the earth around them. I still think it’s a very useful course. 

HWH: And you’ve mentioned more than once the need for a good solid course in geography. 

GWB: There was a fair amount of geography in “Evolution of Earth and Man”. The course gradually fragmented, as Harold Plough and I were eased out by the younger men, particularly in the later years; phases — particularly the geography — were dropped out, certain parts of the history of geology and historical aspects were discontinued and with that all appreciation of the progress made, its benefits and the demand for continued inquiry disappeared. It became a specialist subject in physical geology and biology. So then it died. 

HWH: I’ve forgotten the year, my guess is about 1948 or ‘49, perhaps it was ‘47, that Geology moved from what used to be the Geology-Biology Building. 

GWB: We started to move before the war. It was completed after the war.

HWH: Did that have any effect on Geology? The department certainly got more space, but whether the space was as good is a question. 

GWB: I think the space was made over to be much better than we had had. There you have two strong departments in the same building, there will always be fighting for space and acts of piracy. 

HWH: And I suppose that original connection of geology and biology would go all the way back to the mid-19th Century. 

GWB: Yes, and it worked fine in that period. Although Loomis and Emerson were always at odds, when Loomis was in biology, for space. Emmy being the senior crowded them a little bit. 

HWH: Of course Loomis would have had to have been Emmy’s appointee. 

GWB: Oh no, he wasn’t! No. Emerson didn’t want to retire until he and Hitchcock had taught for 100 years. 

HWH: That’s right, Hitchcock had 50 or 51. (Looks through papers) 

GWB: 1823 to ‘64. Emmy,with 47, wanted to go two more years and Meiklejohn got rid of him. 

HWH: Hitchcock taught-- oh I was thinking of the younger Hitchcock, who taught from 1861 to 1911. That’s 50 years.

GWB: At Amherst! 

HWH: And Emerson taught from 1870 until 1917, 47 years. And he lived until 1932, I believe. 

GWB: Somewhere in there. You see, then Hitchcock went from 1823 to 1864. Emmy wanted to go two or three more years and Meiklejohn ruled it out. So Loomis applied for the job. 

HWH: I had not known that. So Emerson certainly did not bring him in. 

GWB: No, that is a thing that was one of the bits of friction between Loomis and Emerson. I don’t know who Emmy had in mind, but he wanted to go for three more years to finish the century. You see there was a slight gap from 1864-1870.

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Suggested citation format:
Oral history interview with George W. Bain, 1977 December 22, in Amherst College Oral History Project Records, (Box 1, Folder 1), Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library <>

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Related Materials

George W. Bain Papers, 1920-1990 (bulk: 1928-1981) Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

Benjamin Kendall Emerson Papers, circa 1837-1928 Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

Frederic Brewster Loomis (AC 1896) Papers, 1896-1938 Amherst College Archives & Special Collections