J.W. Spencer,
Professor of Geology at the University of Georgia from 1888 to 1890

        J.W. Spencer was Professor of Geology at the University of Georgia from 1888 to 1890.  He was the first person to teach geology at the University who had a Ph.D. in Geology, the first person to hold a position with teaching duties solely in Geology (and thus not in chemistry, botany, agriculture, or French), and the first person to teach Geology at the University who was not from the South.  As a Canadian, he was the first of three professors in UGA's "Canadian Connection" in geology, in that he was followed forty years later by Geoffrey Crickmay and eighty years later by Gilles Allard.

        Joseph Winthrop Spencer, christened as Joseph William Spencer but known generally as J.W. Spencer or J. Winthrop Spencer, was born in Dundas, Ontario, in 1851.  He earned a B.A.Sc. "with First Rank in Geology and Mineralogy" from McGill University in Montreal in 1874.  His professors there included the famous Canadian geologist William Dawson.

        Over the next few years Spencer worked as a geologist in the copper mines of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and taught in Hamilton, Ontario.  In 1877, having written up his research in Michigan as a dissertation, he passed the qualifying examinations of the University of Göttingen and soon was awarded a Ph.D. in Geology, becoming the second Canadian to earn a Ph.D. in Geology.

        In 1880 Spencer took a position as Professor of Geology at King's College in Windsor, Nova Scotia.  His research in this period increasingly turned to the glacial geology of southern Ontario.  In 1882 he became Professor of Geology and Mineralogy and Director of the Natural History Museum at the University of Missouri.  He left that position in 1887.

        Spencer became a Professor of Geology at the University of Georgia in 1888.  He took the position in part because a previous position in biology and geology was divided, and thus he could take a position solely in Geology, the first time there was such a position at the University.   As Reed (Chapter X, p. 1/1503) puts it, "While considerable attention was given to the teaching of Geology during the earlier years of the University, it was not until 1888 that a professor was employed to devote his entire time and attention to the teaching of that subject."

        Spencer seems to have liked the move to Georgia, and he wrote to his old teacher Dawson that "I like my change  . . .  with Athens and with the people I am very much pleased. I somewhat dread the long summer although the heat is not excessive as we are (topographically) high".  However, at the end of 1889 he was appointed State Geologist of Georgia and, unlike George Little, was not allowed to hold two state positions simultaneously.  He therefore resigned from the University in 1890.

        Reed (Chapter 10, p. 2/1504 to 3/1505) has somewhat different account of why Spencer left:

        Dr. Spencer was a Northern man with a splendid educational background.  He had earned the degree of Doctor of Philosophy with a major in Geology.  He unquestionably knew his subject, but that was nearly all that could be said of him.  At first he got along very well with the students, but he did not have the knack of putting things over.  The boys got an idea that he didn't know exactly what he was talking about.  They even got to making fun of him.  They dubbed him "Old Rocks" [vs. William Louis Jones's nickname "Old Ichthy"] and that name stuck to him for the two years that he remained before he left for other fields.  He came to the conclusion that he was a misfit in the position he held and in 1890 resigned.  . . . Dr. Spencer was a scholarly gentleman, but he did not suit the Georgia boys.

        As State Geologist of Georgia, Spencer focused mostly on the stratigraphy of Paleozoic sedimentary rocks of northwest Georgia.  This displeased a government more interested in mining, and he gave up the position in 1893.  He went on to establish himself as an independent consulting geologist in Washington, D.C. from 1894 to 1914, working on projects in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.  He died in 1921 and was buried in his hometown of Dundas, Ontario.  His widow later established a scholarship bearing his name at the University of Manitoba, and in 1944 that scholarship was transformed into the Winthrop Spencer Gold Medal to be awarded "for outstanding achievement in geological research by a student or graduate".




The material above is almost entirely from the following two articles:
Gerard V. Middleton., 2004, J.W. Spencer : his life in Missouri and Georgia, and work on proglacial lakes: Geoscience Canada, v. 31, p. 147-
Gerard V. Middleton., 2004, J. W. Spencer (1851-1921): his life in Canada, and work on preglacial river valleys: Geoscience Canada, v. 31, p. 49-56.

        except where material is specifically attributed to

Thomas Walter Reed 's History of the University of Georgia, (~1949).

        The image of a painting of J.W. Spencer above is from a webpage of the Robert B. Ferguson Museum of Mineralogy at the University of Manitoba.  The image of the title page of Spencer's report on northwestern Georgia is from Google Books.


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