The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Calvin, Samuel J.
(February 2, 1840–April 17, 1911)

–renowned geologist and State University of Iowa professor—was born in Wigtonshire, Scotland. In 1851 the family moved to a farm near Saratoga, New York, then within a few years to Buchanan County, Iowa. An excellent student, Samuel taught school in nearby Quasqueton at age 16. On the Iowa frontier, he reveled in exploring the vanishing native prairie landscape.

    Calvin attended Lenox Collegiate Institute near Hopkinton, interrupted by a short Civil War stint in the Federal army in 1864. Calvin returned to Lenox as both student and teacher of natural sciences and mathematics, also serving briefly as the college's acting president and as Delaware County Superintendent of Schools. Calvin married Mary Louise Jackson, a Lenox student and daughter of one of the college's founders, in 1865. The couple had two children, Alice and William John.

    While teaching at Lenox, Calvin forged a strong friendship with a student, Thomas Macbride. The two took regular field trips to explore the flora and geology of the surrounding prairies. Calvin left Lenox in 1869 to be a school principal in Dubuque, but he and Macbride continued their field trips, which soon ranged across the state of Iowa and throughout the United States and into Canada.

    As Calvin's teaching reputation grew, the State University of Iowa invited him to deliver a series of lectures. They were so well received that in 1873 the university invited Calvin to serve on the faculty in natural sciences and as curator of the University Cabinet, the school's collection of geological specimens, fossils, and mounted animals and birds. Calvin combined lectures with laboratory and fieldwork, the latter two applied elements controversial among professors at the time. Calvin also employed photography in his teaching, becoming a renowned photographer and amassing a collection of 7,000 photos. As his lectures earned a stellar reputation, many students attended to observe their rhetorical and literary craft. Calvin's published writing also became known for its aesthetic eloquence as well as its scientific precision. Calvin took seriously his role as public scholar, seeing geology as both a scientific and cultural pursuit, a subject for specialization as well as general education. He became well known across the state for his public "illustrated talks" (with slides) given before all manner of clubs and schools, predating the university's development of a formal extension program.

    One of Calvin's perennial complaints was about the governing board's unwillingness to enhance the paltry Cabinet collection. He made his personal specimens available to his students, but the maintenance and continued enlargement of that collection were costly. Eventually, the board appropriated $150 for a field trip. An extensive excavation trip yielded many geological and fossil specimens, although the expenses exceeded the board's modest allocation.

    As the science program grew, Thomas Macbride was hired as Calvin's teaching assistant in 1878. Their personal and professional friendship only deepened over the next 30 years as Macbride developed into a highly respected professor of botany, allowing Calvin to specialize in zoology and geology. The pair continued their field collections, developing a renowned herbarium and transforming the Cabinet into the Museum of Natural History.

    As teaching and curatorial duties became more demanding, the natural history staff grew to include such notables as Gilbert Houser, Charles Nutting, George Kay, and Bohumil Shimek. So, too, grew the need for larger facilities. In 1885 a new science building was opened, which was famously moved across the street in 1905, where it continues to stand as Calvin Hall on the University of Iowa campus. Eventually, new facilities were needed again, and the construction of what is now called Macbride Hall was authorized in 1904.

    Although Calvin's knowledge was mostly self-acquired, Cornell College (Iowa) conferred a Master of Arts degree on him in 1874, and his alma mater awarded him a Ph.D. in 1888, followed by an LL.D. from Cornell in 1904. Over time, Calvin gave up many of his duties and narrowed his academic focus to geology and paleontology. His stellar reputation led to his appointment in 1892 as Iowa's State Geologist. In that position he led the third–and most complete–State Geological Survey. Calvin was formally installed as head of the Department of Geology in 1902. Within a quarter century, he had developed his lone professorship into three separate, highly respected departments staffed by eight professors and numerous assistants, giving the sciences a vibrant presence on the State University of Iowa campus.

    Calvin also garnered a national reputation as one of the preeminent paleontologists of his day. He became especially well known for his discovery of Devonian fish fossils in the local area and did foundational work in the area of Pleistocene fauna. Calvin contributed more than 70 scholarly articles, reports, and other writings to the annual Iowa Geological Survey reports, the natural history bulletin he established at Iowa, and numerous scientific journals. He founded and edited the American Geologist, and he filled leadership roles in the geological section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of America. Calvin ascended to the presidency of the latter in 1908, the same year he advanced to the presidency of the Iowa Academy of Science and was invited by President Theodore Roosevelt to the White House to participate in one of the first national conferences on conservation.

    In 1904 the State University of Iowa threw a gala celebration for Calvin's 30 years at Iowa, and it was the august professor's wish to go on to complete four decades of service. He developed heart disease, however, and his health gradually failed. He died at age 71 on April 17, 1911. University classes were canceled on the day of his funeral at the Presbyterian church, of which Calvin was a devout member. He was buried in Iowa City's Oakland Cemetery. Although his wife Mary's health was poor throughout much of her adult life, she outlived Samuel by 11 years.
Sources A file of Calvin materials is at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. A collection of 4,000 of Calvin's photographs is in the University Archives, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. An online collection is maintained by the University of Iowa Department of Geoscience at Biographies of Samuel Calvin are H. Foster Bain, Samuel Calvin (1911); and Harrison John Thornton, "Samuel Calvin," in Centennial Memories (1947). Additional information can be found in Stow Persons, The University of Iowa in the Twentieth Century: An Institutional History (1990); and John C. Gerber, A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa, expanded ed. (2005).
Contributor: Thomas K. Dean