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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
White, Charles Abiathar
(January 26, 1826–June 29, 1910)

–noted geologist, paleontologist, and author, as well as a medical doctor and college professor of natural sciences—was the second of six children of Abiathar White, a carpenter, and Nancy (Corey) White. Born at North Dighton, Massachusetts, on the ancestral farm, Charles was 12 years old when his family moved to the Mississippi River city of Burlington, in what was then the Iowa Territory in 1838. White spent his formative years there, apprenticing to his father in the carpentry trade. Although he had an insatiable curiosity about the natural world around him, Charles received only eight months of formal schooling from the age of 12 until he was well into his 20s.

    After becoming a carpenter, White first practiced his trade in Burlington, then in St. Louis until about 1847, when he moved back to North Dighton and married Charlotte R. Pilkington in September. In 1849 Abiathar White died, and Charles and Charlotte moved back to Burlington, where Charles continued his carpentry trade. White, who had always longed for the formal education that he could not afford, bought the few books he could and continued his studies independently. Fascinated by Burlington's well-known fossil beds, he studied local geology and paleontology. Lacking employment opportunities in geology, White started to study medicine in 1854. Finally, in 1860, Dr. Seth S. Ransom sponsored him in medicine, and he began a formal apprenticeship, later attending medical lectures and studies at the University of Michigan and at Rush Medical College in Chicago, where he received his medical degree.

    Then White moved with his family to Iowa City to practice medicine. His true passion and practical education must still have been in geology, for he only practiced medicine for a few years before he was appointed State Geologist of Iowa by a legislative enactment in 1866. His geological survey of western Iowa continued for about four years, and culminated in the publication of White's two-volume Report on the Geological Survey of the State of Iowa.

    In 1867, while still working for the Iowa Geological Survey, White became a professor of natural history at the State University of Iowa. He continued teaching geology, as well as zoology, botany, and human physiology, at the university until 1873, when he left Iowa for a professorship at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. While there, White started a paleontological survey, this time for the federal government. By 1875 White had resigned his Bowdoin faculty seat and moved with his family to Washington, D.C., to join the U.S. Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region. He traveled through most of the United States, including the Yellowstone National Park area, where Abiathar Peak is named after him. In 1879 he had a brief stint as curator of paleontology in the U.S. National Museum before funding was cut off for his position. He then served as a geologist in the U.S. Geological Survey from 1882 to 1892. During those years, he also turned his talents toward an artesian wells commission sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as a comprehensive publication about the Cretaceous fossils collected by the government of Brazil's Geological Survey. The vagaries of the federal budget led him to retire from the U.S. Geological Survey in 1892, when he was well into his 60s. He continued his relationship with the National Museum (soon to be renamed the Smithsonian) as an associate of paleontology for the remainder of his life.

    Over White's long life, he was the quintessential natural scientist, publishing more than 200 papers and books, many of which are archived in the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. White was also active in his professional community, belonging to many scientific societies. He was an original member of the Geological Society of America and was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1889. He was elected a corresponding member in many European societies, including the Geological Society of London. Despite his long tenure in Washington, D.C. (from 1876 until his death in 1910), he always considered Iowa to be his home state. Through all of those years, Charles Abiathar White was one the more influential and well respected American scientists, and much of what he accomplished was because of his hard work and his profound interest in the natural world.
Sources Some of White's work is available in the Library of Congress and the Library of the Smithsonian Institution, both in Washington, D.C., including a bibliography of his published papers and books. Other biographical information is available in the Dictionary of American Biography vol. 10 (1958) and American National Biography (1999), as well as in an autobiographical sketch, available on a descendant's Web site at www.santanager. net. An obituary notice by Marcus Benjamin is in Science 32 (1910), 146.
Contributor: Kristi Bennett

Cite as: Bennett, Kristi. "White, Charles Abiathar" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 21 October 2017