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Table of Contents
J Harlen Bretz was an American geologist known for his research about the “scablands” of Eastern Washington formed because of the massive flooding during the Ice Age. His theory faced a great deal of criticism at that time. He always needed to defend his hypothesis until the 1970s, when several overwhelming pieces of evidence surfaced that validated his theory.
Key Facts & Information
Early Life and Family
- J Harlen Bretz was born on September 1, 1882, in Saranac, Michigan. He was the oldest of five children born to Oliver and Rhoda Bretz. His father owned a family farm where his father dabbled in his free time. He mainly worked in a variety and furniture store.
- His father was a descendant of John Bretz, an early German settler in Ohio. Bretz was proud of his German heritage.
- He was interested in astronomy and explored the natural environment of the family farm, including the nearby Grand River.
- The 1900 Census listed him as Harland J. Bretz. When he entered college in 1901, he used J. Harlen Bretz. He proceeded to drop the period when he graduated. According to his two children, his given name was Harley, but most of his friends and associates in his later life called him “Doc.”
- In 1901, Brentz entered the Albion College in Michigan intending to become a missionary after being raised as a Methodist.
- However, his natural interest in science persisted and resulted in a scientific paper, his senior thesis, “Winter Field Work in Botany.” It was published in the Seventh Report of the Michigan Academy of Science.
- He graduated in May 1905 and married Fanny B. Challis the following year, daughter of a Methodist minister he met at Albion.
- He finished a graduate course in 1906 and accepted a teaching position in Biology at Flint High School. However, when the school could not meet his demand for a reasonably substantial raise, Brentz took a teaching job in Seattle where he and his wife settled.
Life in Seattle
- Bretz taught physiography at three Seattle high schools for the next four years. It was because of this that he increasingly became interested in Earth Science.
- Bretz was teaching at Queen Anne and spent his weekends at the Puget Sound region exploring geology. It led to his significant geological paper titled the “Glacial lakes of Puget Sound,” published locally in the Journal of Geology in late 1910.
- Bretz ended his teaching career in 1911 and spent his summer in the Puget Sound region to further study its glaciation. The State Board of Geological Survey partially funded this research.
- In the same year, he began his graduate studies in geology at the University of Chicago and completed his Ph. D., with summa cum laude, in two years. He turned his summer fieldwork into a dissertation titled “Glaciation of the Puget Sound Region.” The Washington State Geological Survey published the study in 1913.
- The University of Washington appointed Bretz as an assistant professor. However, he was not happy about the university’s lack of attention paid to field studies and his department’s textbooks and lecture methods. He moved to the University of Chicago in 1915, starting as an instructor, and became a tenured associate professor by 1921.
- His field courses in geology brought him back to the Northwest, particularly in Columbia River Gorge between Washington and Oregon.
The Flood Theory
- In 1923, Bretz published his famous theory titled “The Channeled Scablands of the Columbia Plateau” in the Journal of Geology. In it, he proposed that a massive flood 16, 000 years ago emerged from the margins of the nearby Cordilleran Ice Sheet, which formed the Plateau’s unique landscape. He called it the Spokane Flood.
- Many geologists considered his idea outrageous. He was invited to defend his hypothesis at a meeting sponsored by the Geological Society of Washington D.C., where six other geologists presented opposing views. He called the group “challenging elders,” himself being 45 years old and having supreme self-confidence. He seemed to bask in his self-definition as a lonely avatar of scientific truth.
- The biggest flaw of Bretz’s hypothesis was that he did not suggest the water source of the cataclysmic flood.
- In 1925, a geologist named Joseph Thomas Pardee, who identified the primary source of the flood before Bretz published his paper, wrote to him suggesting that a collapse of the ice dam holding back Lake Missoula would have unleashed massive flooding.
- Bretz published this possibility in his 1933 paper but did not pursue the suggestion.
- Bretz’s hypothesis began to see some light. On June 18, 1940, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Seattle, Pardee delivered a paper titled “Ripple Marks(?) in Glacial Lake Missoula.”
- He discussed in detail how the ripples in northwestern Montana were caused by surges of moving sediment left behind by the sudden draining of the lake.
- Furthermore, he speculated that the lake had eventually been deep enough to lift the ice that had dammed it. Five hundred cubic miles of water burst through the remnants of the ice barrier and scattered over the scablands.
- Another proof supporting Bretz’s flood theory was when the Bureau of Reclamation in 1950 took aerial photographs for the Columbia Basin irrigation project. Bretz was so intrigued that at nearly 70 years old, he returned to the scablands for new field studies in 1952. He found fifteen more giant current ripples, which show that there had been several floods in the scablands and that it came from the repeated damming and draining of Glacial Lake Missoula.
- The 1974 satellite images confirmed his theory. Quoting The New York Times, “While his proposal was long controversial, a photograph made from an earth satellite some 570 miles overhead has now provided clear evidence for the scope and nature of this prehistoric catastrophe.”
- In 1933, Bretz turned his attention to another research project by joining as a physiographer in the Louise A. Boyd Expedition to East Greenland. He published the results of his observations in “Physiographic Studies in East Greenland.” It includes Bretz’s correspondence with Louise Boyd and Isaiah Bowman of the A.G.S, short vignettes of wildlife and scenery, and his journal narrating his personal experiences on the trip.
- Bretz also wrote studies on the origin of the limestone caves. He made an extremely influential paper explaining the source of many cave features by the processes of groundwater circulation below the water table. His most extensive cave survey was written in his book, “Caves of Missouri”, published in 1956.
- He continued to be a faculty member at the University of Chicago until 1947. In his semi-retired position at the university, he supervised the field geology training of more than three hundred graduate students, including some future geological luminaries.
- He was awarded the Neil Award for teaching excellence by the National Association of Geology Teachers for his renowned Socratic method.
- J Harlen Bretz was given the Penrose Medal, the highest award of the Geological Society of America in recognition of his lifetime scientific achievements. He was ninety-seven years old and after receiving the award, he told his son, “All my enemies are dead, so I have no one to gloat over.”
- Bretz and his wife had two children, Rudolf Challis Bretz and Rhoda Bretz Riley. He died on February 3, 1981, at ninety-nine years old.
J Harlen Bretz Worksheets
This is a fantastic bundle which includes everything you need to know about J Harlen Bretz across 26 in-depth pages. These are ready to use worksheets that are perfect for teaching about J Harlen Bretz who was an American geologist known for his research about the “scablands” of Eastern Washington formed because of the massive flooding during the Ice Age. His theory faced a great deal of criticism at that time. He always needed to defend his hypothesis until the 1970s, when several overwhelming pieces of evidence surfaced that validated his theory.
Complete List Of Included Worksheets
Below is a list of all the worksheets included in this document
- J Harlen Bretz Facts
- A Geologist’s Life
- Two Theories
- The Theory’s Journey
- Bretz’s First Career
- Bretz’s Characteristics
- Three Pieces of Evidence
- Bretz’s Flood Theory
- Amid Criticisms
- Defending Theories
- Ice Age Flood Evidences
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