GSA Medals & Awards

Mary C. Rabbitt History of Geology Award

Kenneth L. Taylor
Kenneth L. Taylor
University of Oklahoma

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All 2007
Division Award Recipients

Presented to Kenneth L. Taylor

 Citation by Kennard B. Bork

It is a distinct personal pleasure to recognize Dr. Kenneth L. Taylor as the 2007 recipient of the Mary C. Rabbitt History of Geology Award. As Oklahoman Will Rogers might say, “Better a Sooner than later.”

Although associated with the University of Oklahoma throughout his professional career, Ken was born in Los Angeles -- hence the laid-back demeanor. He was educated at Harvard for all three degrees (bachelors, masters, and Ph.D.). Of course, you can always tell a Harvard man -- but you can’t tell him much. His doctoral advisers were I. Bernard Cohen and Everett Mendelsohn, giants in the discipline of history of science. Ken’s dissertation focused on Nicolas Desmarest (1725–1815) and his impact on French geoscience and technology.

 The discipline of history of geology was in its American infancy in 1969 when elements of that dissertation were published in Cecil Schneer’s seminal book Toward a History of Geology. “Geology in 1776” was the title of another valuable Taylor paper, incorporated into Schneer’s Two Hundred Years of Geology in America (1979). Unlike some reprobates (yours truly is a case in point), Prof. Taylor stuck to his early research topics of Desmarest and French geoscience in the 18th century. The result has been a strong and coherent body of work, published in premier journals and in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, and presented at conferences around the world. Ken’s work has illuminated a people and a period. His 1985 paper on “Early geoscience mapping, 1700–1830” represents a pivotal statement on that important topic. Recently, he has worked with his Ph. D. student, Kerry Magruder, as they analyzed theories of the earth and the evolution of geology from 1450 to 1789. As Prof. Claudine Cohen, of the École des Hautes Études in Paris has noted, Ken Taylor’s world-class work has helped us understand a ‘crucial and complex moment when speculative Theories of the Earth gave birth to scientific geology.’ As of 2007, a collection of Ken’s pivotal papers is now part of the Ashgate Variorum series.

Trained as an historian, Ken is also a Fellow of the Geological Society of America. Many of you will remember when he co-chaired the well-received 1994 Penrose Conference on “From the Inside and the Outside,” which looked at how historians and scientists can work to bridge the chasm between their disciplines. In 1999, Ken chaired GSA’s History of Geology Division. Over the years he has served us well in his various capacities within the History of Science Society (HSS), the History of Earth Sciences Society (HESS), and the International Commission on the History of Geological Sciences (INHIGEO). In the early 1980s, Ken was Treasurer of HESS and I was Secretary; in the late ’90s he chaired the GSA Division and I was President of HESS, as we worked together to make HESS an Associated Society with GSA; and currently Ken is the INHIGEO Vice-President for North America, while I am the Secretary-General. Thus, our careers have overlapped to an interesting degree—and I can report that working with Ken is an absolute pleasure.

When speaking of working with institutions and people, we must not forget that Prof. Taylor chaired the Department of History of Science at the University of Oklahoma, from 1979 through 1992. That Ken successfully pursued research and service-to-the-discipline chores while heading Oklahoma’s stellar program is significant. A noteworthy encomium was given by a colleague, who said that, “he wore authority well.” Innumerable students profited from his undergraduate teaching and Ken also mentored about a dozen doctoral students. A colleague reports that despite his wide reputation as a scholar, Ken never neglected the department or students at Oklahoma. The University of Oklahoma has recognized his gifts with teaching awards and a Torchmark Presidential Professorship. Beyond Oklahoma, Ken’s hard work and abilities have been recognized in a variety of ways. He was a Dibner Visiting Historian of Science (1990–91) and he received the Sue Tyler Friedman Award of the Geological Society (London) in 1998.

Aside from the scholarly productivity and awards received, a key component of Ken’s persona is that working with him is so pleasant. Betty Bellis, who typed his Ph. D. dissertation back in 1968, recently made the point that he was then, and is now, a fine individual and a joy with whom to work. Kerry Magruder shared the 18-page file of verbal applause heaped upon Ken at his retirement ceremony in May 2006. Recurring themes are integrity, wonderful mentoring, and responsiveness. When a student says that you are “one of the most civilized people I know,” it is evident that a positive impact has been made. In our voluminous contacts over almost four decades, I would concur with all of those assessments. Given the data presented above, I suggest that the empirical evidence is in—nice guys can finish first.

It is a pleasure to recognize Kenneth L. Taylor as GSA’s winner of the Mary C. Rabbitt Award for 2007.

 top 2007 History of Geology Award - Response by Kenneth L. Taylor

I am very proud to receive the Mary C. Rabbitt Award. I thank the GSA, the History of Geology Division, the Division’s officers and the members of the award panel. I am honored, and delighted, to have my name added to the list of distinguished contributors to scholarly work in the history of geology who have won this award since it was inaugurated 25 years ago.

My own path into investigation of geology’s past was a bit indirect. Something I learned in college was to put aside my juvenile prejudice to the effect that the only truly respectable fields of knowledge are the natural sciences and mathematics. I think I must have been looking for ways to link the methodological rigor and spirit of discovery characteristic of the sciences, with the concern for big questions about human values and choices attended to in the humanities and social sciences. So I was happy when I found out that Harvard’s History of Science department offered a program allowing students to fuse together science and history in a bachelor’s degree package, without too much discernible concern about how the parts fit together. To the surprise of nearly everyone, including myself, I was allowed to continue this experiment in multi-disciplinary education in the department’s graduate program.

Although I have only a dim memory of how I decided to pursue research in the history of geology, I am quite sure about two personal motivations lying behind this choice. One was that since childhood I had always been fascinated by maps and geography, by the realization that terrain can be represented and interpreted. The other lay in the fact that, although I lacked formal geological training, I had an inordinate fondness for exposed rock masses like my home state’s Sierra Nevada, and the Alps, and had picked up some bits of knowledge about mountain ranges. This arose through my experience in mountaineering, to which I was passionately if quite amateurishly dedicated. In any case, I admired what I knew about the perspectives afforded by geological science, and was keen to find out more about how these perspectives had been formed.

I owe a lot to the facts that the Harvard graduate program in History of Science was a flexible one, and that my teachers there—especially my undergraduate tutor George Basalla, and professors Bernard Cohen and Everett Mendelsohn—chose to have confidence in me notwithstanding plenty of reasons for doubts. It did not matter that Cohen and Mendelsohn worked mainly in the history of physics and biology; I could pursue geology’s past if I wanted, and was encouraged to do so. Perhaps the most telling example of the doctoral program’s flexibility in my case is the abrupt change of direction I was permitted to take in my third year, shortly after general exams. It had been understood that the sphere of my interest was to be the United States. My undergraduate honors thesis had been on American scientific exploration overseas in the mid-19th century, and most of my History Department course and seminar work had been in American history. As I look back on it, my mentors ought to have been alarmed, or even indignant, when I told them I thought it would be more interesting instead to work on this 18th-century French character, Nicolas Desmarest. Perhaps they were, but mild and possibly diverted surprise was the most they showed to me. They just said, well, okay, to do that you’ll need to go to France. So they arranged a one-year traveling fellowship in Paris. The more time passes, the more remarkable I think it is that they were so accommodating.

For 39 years until my retirement a year ago I taught the history of science at the University of Oklahoma. This meant teaching comprehensively, as regards both subject matter and level of instruction. History of geology as such actually occupied only a modest place in my teaching experience. On the whole this was fine with me since I always preferred to consider myself a historian of science of a generalist sort, although dedicated in most of my research to early geology. It has been very satisfying to teach, and therefore continually to learn more about, the historical development of the full range of natural sciences in Western civilization across three millennia, from the ancient near east to the present day. Over the years, probably about three-quarters of my teaching time was at the undergraduate level, with students drawn broadly from major fields in over half a dozen of the university’s colleges. Even as a director of graduate research in the history of science, I was allowed—or sometimes maybe I simply assumed—a certain breadth. Of the eleven doctoral students I supervised or co-supervised to completion, only three did dissertations that are recognizably about the history of geological science. It is entirely likely that my self-conception as a generalist contributed to my modest rate of productivity in published history-of-geology research; but I think it has both widened and deepened my understanding on all fronts, including that of the history of geology.

Let me say a few things about what I perceive as general patterns and consistencies in the approaches I have taken in my scholarly work. Certainly one consistency is my ongoing interest in Desmarest, on whom I expect to continue working for at least a few years more. My first research on this 18th-century French figure did nothing to call into question his significance as a geological innovator. His reputation as a pioneering field observer was, and is, richly deserved. His proposals for chronological interpretation of volcanic landscapes were indeed novel and influential. However, I did learn some unexpected things, and drew some modestly revisionist conclusions, some of which had historically interesting consequences. The breadth of Desmarest’s geological interests surprised me a little. Perhaps my most intriguing discovery was that Desmarest’s volcanological investigations never brought him to embrace a comprehensively ‘vulcanist’ doctrine, indeed he was in certain ways of a resolutely ‘neptunist’ persuasion. This observation contradicted parts of the standard story-line, in which advocates of those two views were supposed to be clearly differentiated. It also emerged that the seeds of Desmarest’s geological career had an even more distant resemblance to modern sorts of geological experience than I had been led to suppose, whereas he had unexpectedly strong affinities with antiquarian scholars. It became apparent that I would need to learn much more about the broader scientific culture in which Desmarest lived, and the community of savants with whom he interacted. My effort to understand the world and work of Desmarest—who, incidentally, was also an important figure in technological and industrial developments of his period—widened into an inquiry into the ideas and circumstances guiding the early growth of geological thought and investigation during his lifetime.

A second persistent element in my work has been my conviction that it is worthwhile trying to examine basic elements of the conceptual worlds of my subjects, the historical characters whose ideas and deeds helped establish the new geological science near the close of the 18th century. This conviction is expressed beautifully in the opening lines of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” As a teacher for almost four decades, I have urged this idea on my students. As a student myself, I have made this idea one of my main historical axioms. Thus, without advocating neglect of historical continuities, I admit to seeing historical differences and discontinuities as particularly important.

It has never been difficult to see my subjects as foreign. They are—geographically, chronologically, and intellectually. To figure out how these foreigners operate it is important (and, usually, fun!) to try to identify the beliefs and rules underlying their conduct. Of course, you have to expect that these characters seldom speak directly about the beliefs and rules guiding their thought. The relevant precepts frequently lurk partly or perhaps wholly beneath the horizon of their consciousness. It is the historian’s job to bring them to light. This involves both detective work and exercise of the imagination, and when successful it yields one of the historian’s greatest pleasures: getting partway into the mind of a distant figure, making the past a little bit more intelligible. Thus, one of my own rules: Cherchez l’opinion préconçue—seek out the hidden preconceptions standing behind what is puzzling or obscure about the ways your subjects think.

A third point, and the one with which I will close these remarks, is an observation about how—notwithstanding my professional training and identity in history of science as distinct from science itself—I seem to have done a lot of my scholarly work in a milieu that mixes together historians and scientists. My view is that this cross-disciplinary miscegenation is on the whole quite healthy. For one thing, in a thinly-populated field like history of geology, it helps create the critical mass of individuals needed to maintain a lively interchange. Probably more importantly, in my experience historians and scientists who share interests in the past of geological science have much to gain by talking and listening to one another. There is mutual advantage in it; each side has understanding valuable to the other; this serves the advancement of our understanding of geology’s past.

The GSA’s History of Geology Division is of course one of the leading institutional arenas for, and promoters of, the kind of mutual interchange I am talking about. I am personally indebted to a good many of its members for the help, encouragement, criticism, and advice I have so much needed on so many occasions. I will continue to count on more of the same for, I hope, a long time to come.

Thank you very much for the honor you do me, with the Mary C. Rabbitt Award.