Roland Duer Irving (1847-1888)

2024 ILSG Pioneer

It is my great honor to nominate and promote Roland Duer Irving (1847-1888) as the 2024 Pioneer of Lake Superior Geology. 

I suspect that many ILSG members are unfamiliar with Dr. Irving and his many truly pioneering contributions to our understanding of various aspects of Lake Superior geology.  Were it not for his premature death at the age of 41, I have no doubt that his continued work on the Precambrian geology of the Lake Superior region would have ranked him as one of the greatest Lake Superior geologists of his time. As it stands, his nearly two decades of mapping, petrography, and geochemical studies and mentoring of students at the University of Wisconsin provided a firm and rational foundation for our further understanding of Lake Superior geology.

Roland Duer Irving was born in New York City on April 29th, 1847 as grand-nephew to the classic American novelist-essayist Washington Irving and the New York State Supreme Court Justice, John Duer.  John Wesley Powell (2nd USGS Director 1881-1894) noted in his memoriam of Dr. Irving (Powell, 1891) that in his youth, “Roland was subject to frequent and alarming attacks of illness, also to a weakness of sight, which proved to be his greatest obstacle through life” and as such “his early education was at home, his sisters and his father being his instructor”. Ultimately, he enrolled at Columbia College School of Mines in 1863, and with the continued help of his sisters, he graduated in 1868 with a degree in mining engineering. During and after his time at Columbia, he worked for coal mines and smelters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  In 1870, he was offered a mining and metallurgy chair position at the University of Wisconsin.

Irving’s arrival at the University of Wisconsin in 1870 marked the emergence of the “Wisconsin School of Precambrian Geology” (Dott, 2001).  He quickly gained prominence within the university as a faculty leader and outside the university as a research investigator (Curti and Carstenson, 1949).  Soon after his arrival, the Wisconsin Geological Survey was established by the legislature in 1873 with Irving, T.C. Chamberlain, and Moses Strong serving assistant geologists.  By 1876, Chamberlin took the reins as chief geologist of the survey, a position he would hold until its legislative termination in 1879.  In 1880, Clarence King, first director of the US Geological Survey, recruited both Chamberlin and Irving to join the USGS in an effort to develop a geologic map of the entire United States.  In 1881, Chamberlin was appointed director of the Glacial Division of the USGS.  In 1882, Irving was appointed to head the USGS’s Lake Superior Precambrian Division, all the while continuing as head of the Department of Mineralogy and Geology at the University of Wisconsin.

During Roland Irving’s teaching and research time with the University of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Geological Survey and the USGS, he came to mentor and collaborate with several notable geologists who would make their own mark on Lake Superior geology (Dott, 2001).  Charles Van Hise arrived at UW as a geology student under Irving’s supervision in 1874.  He completed his BS in 1879, his MS in 1882, and his PhD in 1892 (1st PhD at UW).  With the passing of Dr. Irving in 1888, Van Hise became not only the principal geologist for the USGS’s Lake Superior Division, but also the head of Wisconsin’s geology department. Another notable student of Roland Irving’s at Wisconsin was Florence Bascom. She conducted a petrographic study of the Mellen Complex under the supervision of Irving and Van Hise and received the second ever MS degree in geology from UW in 1887.  She later earned her doctorate degree from Johns Hopkins in 1893, the first woman in the US to be awarded a PhD in geology.
Irving’s work with the Wisconsin Geological Survey (1873-1879) involved many aspects of Wisconsin geology.  In Volume 1 (actually published last in 1883), which was intended to be a general summary of the geology, natural history and economic geology of the state for the general education of the public, Irving contributed chapters on the minerals, rock types, and iron ores of the state.  In Volume 2 (1877), Irving reported on the Precambrian, Paleozoic, and Quaternary geology of central Wisconsin. His descriptions of the general structure and lithologic attributes of the Baraboo Quartzite and its unconformable relationship with adjacent “Silurian” (Paleozoic) rocks is particularly noteworthy.  Volume 3 (1880), which focussed on the geology of Northern Wisconsin, included Irving’s summary report on the general geology of the Lake Superior region (Part 1) and a more detailed report on the geology of the eastern Lake Superior District (Part III).  This work, which was based on field studies conducted between 1875 and 1878, formed the basis of his subsequent USGS work detailing the overall geology and structure of the Keweenawan System in the Lake Superior region. It is noteworthy that the renown petrographer, Raphel Pumpelly, contributed a chapter on the petrography of Keweenawan rocks (Part II) collected by Irving and others.  Irving relied heavily on petrographic examination of field samples in his subsequent USGS work.  In the final volume (#4, 1882) devoted to the geology, paleontology, natural history, and glacial geology of the southern half of the state  Irving’s contribution focussed on the field and petrographic attributes of crystalline rocks of the Wisconsin River valley.  He recruited his MS student, Charles Van Hise, to carry out most of the petrographic descriptions.

Joining the US Geological Survey in 1880 as head of the Lake Superior Precambrian Division, Irving took advantage of being able to explore beyond the confines of Wisconsin and immediately embarked on his long-standing desire to produce a “resume of the results obtained in the Lake Superior country by other geologists up to the present” (Geology of Wisconsin, Volume III (1880) Part 1, p. 3).  Building on his own studies of the Keweenawan System in northern Wisconsin, he reviewed and, where appropriate, integrated all former geologic studies in the Lake Superior dating back to the Michigan surveys of Douglass Houghton (1831-1844), the surveys of Upper Canada starting with Logan (1846), and the work of Joseph Norwood in northeastern Minnesota as part of the D.D. Owen US Survey (1847-1852).  Between July 1880 and March 1882, Irving conducted reconnaissance mapping, along with a crew of five assistant geologists, in several poorly understood areas throughout the Lake Superior basin.  
In 1880, the Minnesota Geological Survey, headed by N.H. Winchell, was in its 9th year of existence, but had only just begun to map the Precambrian geology of the state.  As such, Irving decided to spend much of his mapping efforts on the north shore of Lake Superior between Duluth and Nipigon Bay to ascertain how it correlated with the south shore.  This occurred at a time when many frontier states were developing their own geologic surveys with the expressed purpose of excluding the federal survey.  The USGS already had a strong foothold in Michigan and after the ending of the Wisconsin survey in 1879, developed a strong presence there as well.  Suffice it to say that Irving’s work in Minnesota was not well received or valued by the Winchell’s Minnesota Survey.

Notwithstanding Winchell objections, Irving’s publication of USGS Monograph 5 - The Copper-bearing Rocks of Lake Superior (Irving, 1883) proved to be a remarkably complete and accurate picture of the geology and structure of Keweenawan System (Figure 1).   The many important observations and interpretations about Keweenawan geology put forth by Irving include:

  • formalizing the lithostratigraphy of the Keweenawan System
  • defining the synclinal structure of the lavas in the Lake Superior area
    • recognizing that eruptive rocks consist of basic, intermediate, and felsic types
  • noting no obvious relation of volcanic type to stratigraphic position
  • interpreting that basic lavas were erupted subaerially from fissures, not ash-generating volcanoes
    • recognizing that amygdaloidal zones capping basalts are themselves volcanic (not sedimentary)
  • accurately estimating the thickness of the North Shore Volcanics to be about 18,000’
    • interpreting gabbroic and granitic rocks to be intrusive into the volcanic rocks (thus younger) and likely formed in staging chambers that fed surface eruptions

Following on the publication of Monograph 5, Irving continued to apply his geologic and petrographic expertise to studies of other Precambrian systems (greenstones, quartzites, and iron formations) in collaboration with students and USGS colleagues.  When Roland Irving unexpectedly died (from “paralysis”, perhaps a stroke) on May 30, 1888, he was engaged with Van Hise on another USGS monograph (#19) on the Gogebic Iron Range, which was published posthumously (Irvine and Van Hise, 1892).  This monograph launched Charles Van Hise on a career path to becoming an internationally recognized expert on Lake Superior iron formations.  While Van Hise will ultimately be recognized as pioneer of Lake Superior geology, it is fitting that we first acknowledge the remarkable accomplishments of his advisor and mentor, Roland Duer Irving.   One can only imagine the professional stature he would have attained were he not struck down at the peak of his creativity and expertise.

Curti, M., and Carstenson, V., 1949, The University of Wisconsin, A History, 1848-1925 (v. 1).  Madison,Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 739 p.
Dott, Robert H., Jr., 2001, The remarkable legacy of the Wisconsin School of Precambrian Geology.  Geoscience Wisconsin, v. 18, p. 27-40.
Irving, R.D., 1883, The Copper-bearing Rocks of Lake Superior.  USGS Monograph 5, 464p.
Irving, R.D., and Van Hise, C.R., 1892, Penokee Iron-Bearing Series of Michigan and Wisconsin.  USGS Monograph 19, 534p.
Powell, J.W., 1891, Roland Duer Irving. Eleventh Annual reportof the Director of the United States Geological Survey, Part 1- Geology: 1889-1890 p. 38-42.   

Citation by:

James Miller
University of Minnesota-Duluth