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Earth Notes: John Strong Newberry

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Imagine the thrill of being the first geologist to explore the Grand Canyon. That lucky individual—John Strong Newberry—wasn’t originally a rockhound but instead was a doctor from Ohio. 

Newberry’s interest in geology, botany, and paleontology was ignited during a two-year stay in France to improve his surgical skills. There, he heard lectures at the Museum of Natural History in Paris that sent him in a new direction combining medicine and natural history.

Back in the U.S., he was hired in 1855 for one of the Pacific Railroad’s western surveys. Only two years later, he was appointed physician and naturalist with the Colorado Exploring Expedition, commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Ives. The Ives’ party traveled up the lower Colorado River by steamboat in 1857 and arrived at the mouth of the Grand Canyon—preceding explorer John Wesley Powell by a decade.

Over the next year, Newberry worked upstream, documenting the Canyon’s stratigraphy—which he pronounced “the most splendid exposure of stratified rocks in the world.”  He also collected and described the fossils and fish he found.

A year later he was on assignment again—as geologist to the 1859 San Juan Exploring Expedition led by Captain John Macomb.

The Civil War curtailed his western exploits, but Newberry went on to become  the first Professor of Geology and Paleontology at Columbia University, where he stayed until his death in 1892.

John Strong Newberry’s pioneering science endeavors live on in his writing—describing  the exhausting but exhilarating twin roles of serving as expedition doctor and naturalist.

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