James Dwight Dana

The field of geology is studded by a lot of notable names that anyone would recognize in a heartbeat. One great name though that isn’t heard of very often is that of James Dwight Dana’s. During his time, he made massive contributions to the field of geology, mineralogy, volcanology, and zoology. He was one of the people who pioneered the study of mountain-building, the origin and structures of all the continents and oceans, and volcanic activity. Indeed, he was a man that proved to be relentless in his desire to understand the earth and he was one of the reasons why the modern world knows so much about the earth and how it came to be. Indeed, he was a man that did wonderful work and one name that deserves to be remembered and lauded.


Early life

James Dwight Dana was born in Utica, NY, way back on February 12, 1813. His parents were Harriet Dwight and James Dana who worked as a merchant. Through his mother’s side of the family, he was related to the Dwight Family of New England who were missionaries and educators. Some of his relatives included Henry Otis Dwight and Harrison Gray Otis Dwight. James Dwight showed an interest in science at a very young age and this interest was fostered by one of his teachers in Utica high school. The teacher was fay Edgerton and she had a big role towards making sure that young James developed his interest in science. In the year 1830, he graduated high school and enrolled in in Yale College where he got the chance to study under the elder Benjamin Silliman. He graduated from Yale College three years after in the 1833 and spent the next two years of his life working as a teacher to midshipmen in the navy to whom to taught math to. He got the chance to sail to the Mediterranean while he was teaching.

His career

In the years 1836 and 1837, James Dwight Dana took on a job as assistant to Benjamin Silliman who was a professor at Yale and headed the chemical department. Four years after his assistant post, he moved on to become a mineralogist and a geologist for the US Exploring Expedition which was headed by Capt. Charles Wilkins. The expedition took him all the way to the Pacific Ocean where he found enough material to keep him occupied for the next 13 years of his life. The expedition ended in 1942 and he had notebooks filled with sketches, maps, diagrams, and views of Castle Craggs and well as Mount Shasta. In the year 1849, his sketch of Mounts Shasta was engraved and published in the American Journal of Science an Arts- a publication spearheaded by Silliman in the early 1800s. The publication also published a rather lengthy article based on Dana’s geological notes from 1841. The article talked about rocks, minerals, and the geology of the Shasta region using scientific terms. The year 1844 was an exciting year for James Dwight Dana because not only did he become a resident of New Haven but it was also the year he got married to Henrietta Frances Silliman- she was the daughter of Benjamin Silliman.

In the year 1850, he was given a big honor and was appointed as the successor to his father-in-law and became a Silliman Professor of Natural History and Geology in Yale. Dana held on to this teaching spot until 1892. But teaching wasn’t all he did during those years because in 1846, he joined the American Journal of Science and Arts and took on the role as joint editor. During the later years of his life though, he moved on to become chief editor but he was also a contributor and published works on the subject of geology and mineralogy.

Notable works

It has to be said that he managed to accomplish a lot but he had a couple of contributions that really stood out. For instance, his 1849 publication of Mount Shasta was in response to the gold rush in California. After all, he was the pre-eminent geologist in the US during his life and he really was just one of the very few observers who had knowledge of the terrain in northern CA. Dana was the guy who wrote that given the geography and geology of the area, it was very likely that gold could be found in northern CA.

James Dwight Dana was also responsible for giving the world information about the volcanic landscape and activity in Hawaii. It was in the years 1880 and 1881 that he went on the first geological study of volcanoes in Hawaii and he was the same guy who theorized that the chain of volcanoes in the area consisted of two strands known as the “loa” and the “kea” strands. That wasn’t his first and last visit though because in 1890, he went with C.E. Dutton, a fellow geologist, and again published a manuscript about the island that was the most detailed study anyone had ever seen at that time. For decades, his manuscript was the definitive source for Hawaii’s volcanoes.


Dana was a prolific writer but some of his best works are his System of Mineralogy (1837), Manual of Geology (1863), and his manual of Mineralogy (1848). He also had a very interesting manuscripts published which were entitled Science and the Bible which he wrote in an effort to reconcile science with some biblical texts. Not only did his works get a lot of attention and used in schools but he also received a lot of awards like the Copley Medal in 1877 from the Royal Society, the Wollaston medal in 1874 from the Geological Society of London, and the Clarke medal in 1882 from the Royal Society of New South Wales.

The final journey

James Dwight Dana died on April 14, 1895. He had a son named Edward Salisbury Dana who was also a well-known and brilliant mineralogist during the years 1849-1935.