In Memoriam: John Rodgers Geologist Who Mapped the Bedrock Geology of Connecticut

John Rodgers, the Silliman Professor of Geology emeritus at Yale University who mapped the bedrock geology of the state of Connecticut, and who often said, “I collect mountain ranges,” died March 7 at his home in Hamden. He was 89.

Rodgers’ love for the shape and form of the earth’s landscape developed from poring over plates of the world atlas in his parents’ home in Albany, N.Y., as a child. By the 10th grade at the Albany Academy and after numerous visits to the old New York State Museum, he had decided upon a career as a geologist. At this time, he plunged into a primer on ancient Greek and began a life-long attachment to learning foreign languages. He also began to develop a passionate attachment to music with his first piano lessons.

His quest as a geologist was to understand the origins and histories of mountains through the folded and faulted layers of sedimentary rock that make up much of their fabric. From field work begun in the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee, he developed a detailed, first-hand, encyclopedic knowledge of the entire range from Nova Scotia to Alabama.

In 1970, “Mr. Appalachian Mountain Man,” as many of his colleagues and students called him, established his undoubted mastery of the subject with his book, “The Tectonics of the Appalachians,” whose direct and yet beautifully written text is still a model of scientific writing. In this book he argued convincingly that this ancient range actually had once extended south into Mexico and northwestern South America, and from northwest Africa through Spain and Great Britain to Norway and eastern Greenland, thus lending early support to the recently formulated theory of continental drift. Later, as he extended the lessons learned in the Appalachians to the folded mountain belts of the world, he made use of his linguistic abilities to read the geological literature and give lectures in the languages of the regions where he studied.

In 1957, the long somnolent discipline of stratigraphy was shaken from its mundane cataloguing of the sedimentary layers of the earth with the publication of “Principles of Stratigraphy” written by Rodgers and his colleague Carl Dunbar. With this work the concern of the field shifted from the static and the historical to an emphasis on process in order to reconstruct past environments and their spatial and temporal distribution.

His concern with the dynamic processes that had shaped the Earth’s surface is nowhere more evident than in his monumental 1985 “Bedrock Geologic Map of the State of Connecticut.” This map was unique for its time. It showed how the seemingly stable floor of this rock-ribbed state records a history of lateral shift of vast sheets of rock over immense intervals of time.

Rodgers was born in Albany, N.Y., on July 11, 1914, to Henry and Louise (Allen) Rodgers. He received a B. A. in 1936 and an M. S. in 1937 from Cornell University and his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1944. In that year he joined the Military Geology Branch of the United States Geological Survey where he was responsible for mapping beachheads from Kamchatka to China and Japan.

In 1946 he was invited to join the Department of Geology at Yale, achieving the rank of Professor in 1962. Two years later he began the research that would culminate in the geologic map of Connecticut in 1985. In 1948 he became an assistant editor of the “American Journal of Science,” assuming its editorship from 1954 until 1995.

The year 1977 saw production of his only recording, “Harmonies,” based on Johan Kepler’s idea of the music of the planets, done in conjunction with his long time friend, Yale colleague, and jazz musician, Willie Ruff. In later years, not content to confine his research to a single mountain range, he and his students traveled the globe, enriching the science of geology with the idea that folded mountain belts share a set of basic similarities that are the result of a predictable set of forces acting upon them.

The picture of him that emerges from his 2001 autobiography, “The Company I Kept,” was of an intense and quirky person who interacted profoundly with his circle of friends and colleagues. In 1991 his long-time friend and former Connecticut State Geologist, Joe Webb Peoples recalled that, “As a younger person he was very bright and came on too sharply,” adding that, “He grew in this way amazingly,” to become a revered teacher and expositor of his ideas of Earth history. He believed that geology was best learned in the field, with disputes carried out on the outcrop. In this way he influenced a rising generation of students who went out to map many of the world’s mountain ranges using principles that he had instilled in them.

Rodgers was a member of the National Academy of Science, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Geological Society of America of which he served as president in 1970. He also belonged to the American Geophysical Union, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Geological Society of London, the Geological Society of France, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Academia Real de Ciencias y Artes Barcelona, Phi Kappa Phi, Sigma Xi, and Phi Beta Kappa. Among his many honors were the Medal of Freedom from the U. S. Army (1947), the Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America (1981), the Prix Gaudry of the Geological Society of France (1987), and the Fourmanier Medal of the Royal Academy of Science, Fine Arts, and Letters (1987).