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 J. Harlen Bretz

J. Harlen Bretz

Birth
Death 3 Feb 1981 (aged 98)
Burial Unknown
Memorial ID 40802624 · View Source
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J Harlen Bretz was a geologist whose ideas about the origins of the "scablands" of Eastern Washington evoked ridicule when he first proposed them, in the 1920s, but eventually revolutionized the science of geology. Bretz argued that the deep canyons and pockmarked buttes of the scablands had been created by a sudden, catastrophic flood -- not, as most of his peers believed, by eons of gradual erosion. It was a bold challenge to the prevailing principle of "uniformitarianism," which held that the earth was shaped by processes that can be observed in the present. Since a flood of the almost Biblical proportions envisioned by Bretz had never been seen, it was dismissed as a throwback to the pre-scientific doctrine of "catastrophism." Not until the 1940s did other geologists begin to present new evidence supporting the flood theory. Satellite imagery in the 1970s provided the final vindication. Bretz had the satisfaction of living long enough to see his once heretical ideas become the new orthodoxy. In 1979, at age 96, he received the Penrose Medal, geology's highest honor. He later reportedly told his son: "All my enemies are dead, so I have no one to gloat over" (Smithsonian).
J Harlen Bretz did not enter the world with that name. The county birth registrar recorded his name as "Harlan J. Bretz" when he was born, on September 2, 1882, in the small town of Saranac, in central Michigan's Ionia County. He was listed as "Harland J. Bretz" in the 1900 Census. He entered college in 1901 as "J. Harlen Bretz." He dropped the period after the "J" around the time he completed graduate studies in geology at the University of Chicago in 1913. According to his two children, his given name was actually "Harley." Most of his friends and associates in later life simply called him "Doc."
He was the oldest of five children of Oliver Joseph Bretz and Rhoda Maria Howlett. His father, a farmer, was a descendant of John Bretz, an early settler in Ohio. Bretz was proud of his German heritage. In a family genealogy, published in 1949, he described in detail the hardships encountered by German immigrants to the Midwest and praised their "love of liberty, of husbandry, of home" (Bretz, 1949, p. 6).
Raised a Methodist, Bretz intended to become a missionary when he entered Albion College in Albion, Michigan, in 1901. An innate skepticism turned him toward science instead. His first scientific paper was his senior thesis, "Winter Field Work in Botany," published in the Seventh Report of the Michigan Academy of Science. He concluded the paper with a modest disclaimer: "Different obstacles might be met, different results obtained than I have mentioned. This paper is presented simply as a pregnant suggestion" (Bretz, 1905). Few of his subsequent papers would demonstrate that degree of tentativeness.
Bretz graduated from Albion in May 1905. The following year, he married Fanny B. Challis, the daughter of a Methodist minister, whom he had met while both were students at Albion. In the summer of 1906, after a honeymoon in Bay View, Michigan, Bretz completed a graduate course at the University of Michigan in Flint. He began teaching biology at a Flint high school that fall. According to his biographer, John Soennichsen, Bretz asked for a fairly substantial raise at the end of the school year. When the request was denied, he accepted a teaching job in Seattle, and the young couple decamped for the Northwest.


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  • Created by: Darla Mays (Rodeogirl73)
  • Added: 18 Aug 2009
  • Find A Grave Memorial 40802624
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for J. Harlen Bretz (2 Sep 1882–3 Feb 1981), Find A Grave Memorial no. 40802624, ; Maintained by Darla Mays (Rodeogirl73) (contributor 46771588) Unknown.