Banner

Marland P. Billings (1902-1996)

A Remembrance by Brian K. Fowler

Originally published in "Windswept, The Quarterly Bulletin of the Mount Washington Observatory," Vol. 38. No. 1, Spring 1997, pp. 53-54. Reproduced with permission.

Marland and Kay Billingds
Marland and Kay Billings on Pine Mountain

It's always important in the fields of science to note the passing of someone who made a difference. But, it is especially important when the person deceased not only made important contributions to the science, but also, by dint of personality and inclination, influenced the scientific and personal lives of so many who studied and pursued his science. Marland Billings was just such a person. He died October 9, 1996.

Marland Billings was well-known to many in the Observatory and White Mountain communities. He was born on March 11, 1902 in Boston, was educated at Roxbury Latin School, and received his AB, AM, and Doctorate in geology from Harvard University in 1923, 1925, and 1927 respectively. He taught at Bryn Mawr College for a short time, but returned to Harvard in 1931 where he remained for the rest of his career, developing and influencing the careers and scientific lives of hundreds of geologists who practice today in academia, government, and industry.

During his distinguished academic career he published dozens of professional papers and three editions of a widely-used textbook on the basic principles of structural geology. He served as Chairman of the Department of Geological Sciences at Harvard from 1946 to 1951, as Vice President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science from 1946 to 1947, and as President of the Geological Society of America in 1959. He received honorary doctorates from Washington University in 1960, from the University of New Hampshire in 1966, and he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1987, he was awarded the Geological Society of America's most prestigious award, The Penrose Medal, for his service and considerable contributions to the science of geology.

During his career, he conducted research in many areas of New England, the U.S., and the world, but most of his research was carried out in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, very often in direct collaboration with his wife Katherine Fowler-Billings, an accomplished geologist in her own right, and with dozens of students who helped traverse and map the rugged terrain. Previous workers in the region found their mapping hampered by soil and dense vegetation on the mountain slopes, but Billings and his students overcame these problems by climbing the eroded, and thus soil and vegetation-free, stream channels on the mountain slopes where the bedrock was already exposed. All the streams were followed, since they contained excellent outcrops, and then the ridges between the streams were climbed to study the weathered rock and the outcrops on their higher flanks to add to and connect the information gathered in the streams

In 1937, the Geological Society of America Bulletin published the first paper from this work, "Regional Metamorphism Of The Littleton-Moosilauke Area, New Hampshire". This paper remains today a seminal contribution to the understanding of the bedrock and structural geology of the western White Mountains and for the north-central Appalachians. Billings continued his work into the Presidential Range, and in 1941 the Geological Society of America Bulletin published his next paper on the area, "Structure And Metamorphism In The Mt. Washington Area, New Hampshire". This work has been used in recent years by several workers who have been able to build upon its rigorously detailed observations, its disciplined analyses, and its careful conclusions to redefine the stratigraphic and structural geology of all of New England.

In 1955, Billings collaborated with the Mineral Resource Advisory Committee of the New Hampshire Planning & Development Commission, Harvard University, and the U.S. Geological Survey to publish the first "Geologic Map of New Hampshire" and its accompanying book describing the bedrock geology of the State, and in 1975, he and Kay published the Geology Of The Gorham Quadrangle, New Hampshire - Maine. This last publication, like his first, sets a particular standard of scientific quality that is worthy of some analysis itself, because its content and form say much about Billings' philosophy of science, which may be his most important contribution of all.

Billings was a demanding and rigorous professor of his science, renowned for the depth and reach of his knowledge, his intolerance of undisciplined thinking, and his blunt criticism of unclear writing. These matters of reputation created a formidable and sometimes intimidating persona that was quickly understood to be something quite different as one grew more familiar with him and discovered the enthusiastic warmth and ready sense of humor that characterized him when away from his science. He was considered by most to be the "complete field geologist and teacher" and he was well-known for his dedication, generosity, and intellectual honesty.

A thoughtful analysis of Billings' intellectual approach to research and its publication suggests his philosophy of science was elegantly simple. Thomas Henry Huxley may have been first to articulate this philosophy when he wrote, "...science is simply common-sense at its best; that is, rigidly accurate in observation and merciless to fallacy in logic." (The Crayfish, 1880). These sublimely simple precepts were the foundation of Billings' teaching and mentoring styles and they were the standards to which he held himself and those trying to learn from him. In today's world where some distrust science for what they see as its incomprehensible view of the world and its apparent inability to explain all of our problems or propose all of the solutions we may demand, his philosophy of science and its simple requirements of clear thinking, clear writing, and the application of common-sense may be a prescription worth considering more seriously, especially in the natural sciences where our proclivity to immerse ourselves in mountains of data and eschew fieldwork has sometimes led us into error.

Others will write more professional memorials to Marland Billings in the months to come, but here we should appreciate him as a man of the White Mountains, whose love for the hills will ensure his achievements in them and on their behalf will be added to the rich and permanent legacy we all enjoy. Indeed, his spirit will pervade the activities of every geologist who studies here for many years to come, and what better memorial could anyone ask?

See also issues Number 3 and Number 20 of The Granite State Geologist, newsletter of the New Hampshire Geological Society.

A fund honoring Marland Billings and Katharine Fowler-Billings, supporting Geologic Research in New England and specifically the continued viability of the New England Intercollegiate Geologic Conference, has been established at the Mount Washington Observatory.

Tim Allen (tallen@keene.edu)