Born in New York on August 14, 1859, James Kemp graduated from Brooklyn's Adelphi Academy and earned an A.B. degree in 1881 from Amherst College. Kemp then attended graduate school at the Columbia School of Mines, where he received a degree in mining engineering in 1884, followed by geologic studies in Germany. Kemp worked as a member of the Cornell University geology faculty from 1886 to 1891, when he moved to Columbia University to become adjunct professor of geology. He quickly rose to the position of department head in 1892, and he remained a professor of geology for the rest of his career. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1906.
His scientific reputation was well recognized throughout the field of geology, and his fruitful contributions endure to this day and to the benefit of all in the fields of geology and mining. As a young geologist just beginning his affiliation with Cornell University in Ithaca, he was part of the organizing committee that met at Cornell in 1888 to found the Geological Society of America (GSA). GSA was founded the following year in 1889. Kemp served as Councilor (1905-1907) and as First Vice President (1913). Towards the end of his career in 1921, he served as GSA President.
He served as manager and scientific director of the New York Botanical Gardens (after 1898), and lectured on geology at Johns Hopkins, MIT, and McGill. Kemp, part of the "Committee of Fifty" that founded the Society of Economic Geologists in 1920, served as SEG President in 1924. He helped to establish Economic Geology and served as an associate editor. He also served as a President of the New York Academy of Sciences and as Vice-President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as being a member of other scientific organizations including the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, National Academy of Sciences, and National Research Council.
Kemp authored Ore Deposits of the United States and Canada and A Handbook of Rocks for use without the Microscope (seventh reprinting was in 1906), as well as numerous scientific papers for the U.S. Geological Survey and the New York State Survey.
He died of a heart attack at the train station at Great Neck, Long Island on his way to teach his morning classes at Columbia. As a sign of the appreciation held by the academic community for Kemp's long service and notable contributions, his funeral was held in St. Paul's Chapel on the campus of Columbia University, on November 19, 1926. Among the attendees were nearly the entire faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences in academic robes.
Dr. Kemp was honored as an Inductee from Mining's Past by the American Mining Hall of Fame in Tucson, Arizona, on 5 December 2015.
Katherine Rose Taylor Kemp
1863–1952 (m. 1889)
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