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Josiah Whitney

1819 -1896

Josiah Whitney
  • Whitney was professor of geology at Harvard University (from 1865), and chief of the California Geological Survey (1860-1874). Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous 48 United States, and the Whitney Glacier, the first confirmed glacier in the United States, on Mount Shasta, were both named after him by members of the Survey.
  • Whitney, an otherwise good geologist, held the wrong theory about the formation of Yosemite Valley. Whitney thought Yosemite Valley was formed not by glaciers but "the bottom of the Valley sank down . . ." As William Frederic Badè notes in the Life and Letters of John Muir, by contrast John Muir recognized, "during the very first year of his residence in the Valley ... that it had not been formed by a cataclysm, but by long, slow, natural processes in which ice played by far the major part." Muir was able to prove the glacial origin of the Valley, and discovered live glaciers in the high Sierra, but Whitney never accepted it. He derided Muir as a "mere sheepherder" and "ignoramus." Yet, Muir convincingly proved the glacial origin of Yosemite Valley and related features through painstaking study, published in his Studies in the Sierra. Muir’s view eventually prevailed in the scientific community, including affirmations by his friend, geology professor Joseph LeConte.



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