For decades, J Harlen Bretz’s claims that immense, cataclysmic floods had created unusual landscapes in America’s Pacific Northwest were dismissed by other geologists.
His opponents disliked the idea of sudden, dramatic mega-floods, preferring to interpret everything they saw within a context of gradualism. Incorrectly, they only accepted geology that involved slow, gradual changes rather than catastrophes. Bretz was seen as a heretic. Decades would pass before his opponents finally accepted Bretz was right all along.
In 1980, Bretz was 98 years old. He lived long enough to see another great catastrophism controversy erupt. This time, paleontologists refused to accept Luis Alvarez’s evidence that a catastrophic meteorite impact wiped out the dinosaurs.
Studying the role of catastrophic events in our planet’s history is now mainstream science. This is only the case because scientists such as Bretz and Alvarez continued to argue their cases in the face of ridicule and hostility from some of their fellow scientists.
After belatedly receiving the Penrose Medal, Bretz, age 97, told his son:
The Missoula Floods – Current Thinking
Today’s geologists agree with the final Bretz-Pardee theory that there were a number of mega-floods in the Pacific Northwest between about 18,000 – 14,000 years ago caused by the filling and, when ice dams broke, rapid draining of Lake Missoula.
Personal and Career Details
Harley Bretz was born on September 2, 1882 in Saranac, Michigan, USA. His parents were farmers: Oliver Joseph Bretz and Rhoda Maria Howlett. His father also ran a furniture store and undertakers business.
Harley was the eldest of their five children. In later life, as a joke, he changed his name to J Harlen Bretz. He enjoyed practical jokes! The J wasn’t an initial. His new first name was actually the letter J. People continued to call him Harley.
Another example of his odd sense of humor was that while working as a professor, he would take students to his home and they would find themselves locked in his basement. They would hear him walking away from the basement door laughing. The trapped student would need to find a secret key and secret lock to get out again, which usually took only a few minutes.
Bretz graduated from Albion College, Michigan in 1905, age 22, with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology. Albion College was a Methodist institution – Bretz’s family were rather devoutly religious, but he became increasingly doubtful about religion.
After graduating, Bretz became a biology teacher in Flint. He left after a year for better pay in Seattle, Washington. He began teaching there in 1907, age 25. He was assigned to teach physiography, or physical geography, a field that looks at our planet’s natural features.
Bretz became fascinated by earth science and began spending his weekends in Puget Sound, surveying its geology. In 1910, he wrote a paper entitled Glacial Lakes of Puget Sound describing his research. This was accepted and published by the Journal of Geology.
Bretz realized that geological research work inspired him in a way that teaching could not. He took just two years at the University of Chicago to get a PhD in Geology, graduating in 1913, age 30, summa cum laude (with highest honor).
After a year at the University of Washington, he returned to the University of Chicago in 1914 as Instructor in Geology and spent the rest of his career there, becoming a full professor in 1926. He retired in 1947, age 65.
Family & The End
Bretz met his wife Fanny Chalis at college – she was also studying biology – and they married in 1906. They had two children: Rudolf and Rhoda.
J Harlen Bretz died, age 98, on February 3, 1981, at home in Homewood, Illinois. He was survived by his son and daughter. His wife Fanny died in 1972. Bretz donated his body to science, so there was no interment.
Author of this page: The Doc
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J. Harlen Bretz
Glacial Lakes of Puget Sound: Preliminary Paper
The Journal of Geology, Vol. 18, No. 5 (Jul. – Aug., 1910), pp. 448-458
J. Harlen Bretz
The Channeled Scablands of the Columbia Plateau
The Journal of Geology, Vol. 31, No. 8 (Nov. – Dec., 1923), pp. 617-649
U.S. Department of the Interior/Geologic Survey
The Geologic Story of the Spokane Flood
USGS: INF-72-2 (R-1)
Bretz’s Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World’s Greatest Flood
Sasquatch Books, 1 Jun 2010