Wallace: My name is Robert Earl Wallace, and I was born July 16, 1916 on Manhattan
Island in New York. I like to tell people that cows and horses grazed on
Manhattan Island in New York City near where I spent the first six years of my
life. It was only a small meadow, but we did pass it on our walks from our
apartment on northern Manhattan Island. Also there was an empty lot across
from the apartment where rocks were sticking out--probably Manhattan schist.
Older kids roasted potatoes in rocky crannies on this empty lot, and at age four
or five I was impressed.
My parents, my mother in particular, would take us on picnics. We
would walk over to the Dyckman Street Ferry, which we took across from
Manhattan to New Jersey, and go picnicking on the west shore of the Hudson
River, in the shadow of the Palisades of New Jersey. The Palisades are a
geologic structure--the Palisades sill--as I found out decades later. That was
exotic country for me. I am sure that was the start of my life-long love of
exploration, nature and science.
I have a sister a year-and-a-half older--Harriet E. Wallace--who got
interested in geology at Northwestern. She decided to major in it, mainly in
economic geology and mineralogy. When we were teenagers, her interests led
us to do some mineral collecting, zeolites and such, at Patterson, New Jersey, in
the Palisade sill along the Hudson River, and exotic minerals at the famous site
at Franklin Furnace, N.J. and elsewhere. That was my first taste of geology.
Harriet went on to work as an office geologist with a major chemical
company in New York. She married another geologist, William C. Smith, who
worked for many years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and with the
Illinois Geological Survey. She eventually became head of the great geology
library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she was given a
full professorship. During those years, she became a major force in starting the
Geosciences Information Society and was elected its second President.
Scott: Say something more about your parents and about your grandparents.
Wallace: That is certainly part of the beginning. My father, Clarence Earl Wallace, was born near Van Wert, Ohio. He went off to the Garrett Biblical School at Northwestern University to become a minister. However after he graduated he had sufficient training to go back to Van Wert and teach physics in high school.
My mother, Harriet Wheeler, was born in Plano, Illinois, and grew up in the Oak Park area. She also went to Northwestern where she met my father. On my mothers side of the family, there were two aunts and a great uncle who went to Northwestern. My maternal grandmother, Clara Ryon, was born in California. In 1860 her parents decided to go west with the big westward movement. At the time, my great-grandmother was pregnant with my grandmother, who was born in Woodland, California, in August 20, 1860, just five days after the folks arrived there in a covered wagon. Her father, Hiram Ryon, practiced law there.
My grandmother used to say that her folks thought the three or four
months of traveling across country in the covered wagon in 1860 was one of the
most wonderful times of their lives. They just went along the trail, which by
then was well marked, and traveled with other family members in four or five
wagons. One uncle was only 1-1/2 years old. They had a wonderful trip for the
most part, but at one point they ran across some Indians who wanted to buy the
infant. The folks became worried then and joined a bigger wagon train for a
while. So, you see, we have something of a family history connection with
California from way back.
When my grandmother was seven, the family decided to move back to
Illinois. They went by boat and crossed possibly through Nicaragua to the Gulf
of Mexico, where they took lighters out to ocean-going vessels. Then they
traveled by ship to New York, and back to Illinois by train. My grandmother
later married John C. Wheeler, my maternal grandfather. I like to think about
that early family history, and identify with it.
Scott: Yes, you have a long-standing family connection with California and the covered
Wallace: Now back to my more immediate family background in Illinois and Ohio. As I
said, several on my mother's side, including my mother, went to Northwestern.
My father was the only Wallace who went to Northwestern. My mother and
father were really great parents. They had a sense of adventure. One of my
mother's frequent comments was, "You can become anything you want to be."
So my sister and I did. And, with my mother's encouragement, my father had
the sense of adventure to go to New York and become an art teacher. My
mother--born Harriet Wheeler had a lot of artistic talent. She had majored in
biology at Northwestern, and we still have beautiful lab drawings she did of
frogs, salamanders and such. Her mother, the Clara Ryon Wheeler whom I have
already mentioned, also produced several beautiful pencil drawings of flowers.
Several of my father's early paintings suggest that he was not actually
very artistic, but he had a lot of conviction and drive, and did become a very
successful commercial artist and teacher. He wrote a book titled "Commercial
Art" for McGraw-Hill which became a much-used high school textbook then was
re-published for the military, which had a big publishing spree in the middle of
World War II, distributing books to the armed forces. My father was also on the
boards of directors of various art institutions and societies. For someone who
was not basically artistic, he did very well.
My parents were both teachers. My father taught art in high schools in
New York City, and my mother taught elementary school. After we children
reached a certain age, in the seventh and eighth grade in Demarest, New Jersey,
my mother actually became my teacher. The family had moved from Manhattan
Island to New Jersey, first to the little town of Cresskill, and then to Demarest in
1932, which was my official home address until I finished graduate school.
Developing Interests: Nature, Rope Spinning, Radio, Minerals
Scott: Say a word or two more about some of those early-day experiences, and
especially about some of your own developing interests? You mentioned
picnicking with your mother and sister and collecting rocks.
Wallace: I remember walks with my mother, looking at bugs, flowers and the like. I
found such things very exciting. My early life seemed to be dominated by a
series of what I sometimes call "obsessions"--when I would be totally fascinated
by something. This capacity for intense motivation has been one of the most
precious things in my life.
Scott: With that kind of fascination with what you were doing, or what you wanted to do, you did not have to push yourself.
Wallace: No, I certainly did not, at least not for the subject of the "obsession" of the
moment, although my other chores did suffer at times. I liked to go to bed at
night thinking, "Tomorrow I will do this, and this, and this, and won't that be
exciting?" As I have gotten older, I have tended to lose some of that desire or
drive. Perhaps it is a matter of waning energy levels.
Scott: Say more about some of those obsessions. What were some of those major
interests that fascinated you?
Wallace: When I was about age eight or nine, we had moved to northern New Jersey,
across from New York City, and bird life captured my attention. There were all
sorts of swamplands and deciduous forest--mini-wilderness--in New Jersey in
those days. There were beautiful glacially-formed hills and the rocky Palisades.
It was wonderful country for a kid. In the little towns of Cresskill and Demarest
I could be out in the wilderness in minutes, looking at birds. I remember
springtime so well--in May--being absolutely thrilled with the migration of the
warblers. All the eastern deciduous forests have this marvelous annual event, the
northward migration of the warblers. Many of the birds are in vivid colors at
that time of the year, and myriad songs filled our yard and the surrounding
I was fascinated by the birds, and we put up many feeders for them. I
remember being so excited when the first birds visited the feeder that I used a
whole pack of my father's expensive camera film. I did not get one good
picture, but at the time I thought I was getting a rare photo every time I snapped.
My father had built a darkroom in our home in Demarest, and before that he and
I had developed pictures in a closet. I grew up with photography, mixing
chemicals for the developer and hypo and so on. Photography has been a theme
all through my life, but in a secondary way--mostly as a tool.
Then a year or so after getting interested in birds, I saw a book on trick
and fancy roping, and rope-spinning a la Will Rogers. For a time all I could
think about was spinning ropes. I wanted to be a cowboy, but could not have a
horse, so that desire took another form: "Let's learn how to spin ropes." Using
clothes-line rope, I taught myself by trial and error, with that one simple little
book. My ability developed, and by high school, when the big rodeos came to
Madison Square Garden, I was very excited.
I don't know how my father did it, but somehow he arranged for me to have an hour with the world's champion trick roper, Chet Byers. I demonstrated what I could do for this famous roper, and he gave me pointers. I got some of his special ropes, and--to brag--I got to be rather good at rope-spinning. While I was at Northwestern, I was invited to one of Chicago's fancy nightclubs as a floor show item.
Scott: By that time you would have been about high school age, I guess. Say
something about high school and your interests there.
Wallace: I went to high school at Tenafly, New Jersey. (Tenafly is an old Dutch name, as
is Cresskill.) The area was called the Northern Valley with a newspaper called
The Northern Valley Tribune. In high school I had the usual college-prep
courses, although I was always very heavy into science. I loved biology,
zoology, and physics--you name the science and I loved it--but it was not the
same with history or language.
My sister's interest in mineral collecting got me into geology before I
finished high school. Through high school, however, I had thought of going into
ornithology. With that in mind, in my senior year I went to the American
Museum of Natural History in New York City, walked into the ornithology
department, and asked if there was anybody I could talk to about becoming an
ornithologist. I was admitted to the office of a Dr. Zimmerman. Dr.
Zimmerman told me that, for earning a living, if I had any other interests, I had
better pursue one of those, and consider ornithology a hobby. I said, "Yes sir."
Scott: I guess paying jobs in ornithology were not plentiful.
Wallace: You are right. While talking about hobbies, I cannot ignore ham radio. My
father introduced me to radio-building--he had built several in the 1920s. I got
my ham radio license at age 15. I had to go into New York City to take my
written, theoretical test, the code test and so on. I had learned the code with a
key made out of a hack-saw blade. Radio really became a passion. By the time
I was getting out of high school I thought I would major in electronics and
physics. At Northwestern, I took physics and enjoyed it. I took zoology and
enjoyed that. These were both taken with the idea of following up on
ornithology, or electronics and radio. Photographing birds became a passion,
and that required invention and building remotely controlled electromagnetic
shutter trips--winding the electromagnetic elements from scratch. With such
gadgets I did get some good photos. My very first publication, in fact, was a
bird photo published in a magazine for youngsters.
Northwestern: Choosing Geology as a Major
Wallace: I went to Northwestern in 1934, having taken one extra year of high school. My
family could not afford to put my sister and me into college at the same time.
Also, I was sort of immature, so they thought an extra year in high school would
be good, and it was an excellent idea. I had skipped a grade somewhere along
the way, and thus finished college at 22, which was about when others were
completing college back then.
Northwestern, our "family's" university, was a marvelous school. By the
sophomore year, however, I could not make up my mind on a major subject. I
knew something about minerals by then, and also I had a very good geology
teacher at the beginning, Dr. C. H. Behre. I thought, "I'll procrastinate in
deciding on a major--meanwhile I'll major in geology. That way I can go into
physics through geophysics, or into biology through paleontology." I liked the
out-of-doors--my favorite times were wandering the hills. The idea of working
out-of-doors turned the trick in terms of majoring in geology, which also seemed
to provide the possibility of a variety of kinds of careers in science.
The geology department at Northwestern had, and I understand still has, a
sense of "family." The professors paid close attention to the students and took a
personal interest in them. This was very good for me. I was not an extrovert,
but was a loner type, and timid. I was out looking at birds, or into ham radio, or
almost anything but socializing. So it was a fine atmosphere for me. Two
geology professors, Charles Behre and Art Howland, were wonderful role
At Northwestern I got the basics in geology, structural geology,
mineralogy, petrography, paleontology, and a course in weather and climate--a
nicely rounded background. I did, however, get one very bad piece of advice
there. I had a paleontologist as an adviser, and in my senior year we reviewed
the courses I had taken. I had taken math through calculus, and my advisor told
me I did not need to take more math to graduate. He discouraged me from
taking more math, and that was a mistake. I should have followed up on math
when it was easy for me and I liked it. Once one breaks the sequence in math, it
is hard to recapture. So I never really progressed in math as I would have liked
In the summer of 1937, between my junior and senior year, I got a job
with Al Hoagland, a consulting geologist in Val d'Or Quebec and a graduate of
Northwestern. He needed a field assistant, and promised to pay my way up there
and back, and to give me some experience. It was a summer when everything I
touched was new, and, as you know, a youngster is like a sponge. I had never
used a transit or a dipmeter before. I set the transit up and figured out from
basic trigonometry what I should do. That experience was so very valuable.
In my senior year I applied to various graduate schools. When I started college, I had no idea that I would go on to graduate school, but I guess my professors began talking up things like that, so I applied at Michigan, Minnesota, and Caltech. It seems that there was a close association between the faculties at Northwestern and Caltech. For a period of ten or fifteen years they had traded students back and forth. A number of my friends started at Caltech and then went to Northwestern, and a number of us started at Northwestern and then went to Caltech.
I did not know all this when I applied. A very fine fellowship was offered by
Caltech first, although I was shooting for Minnesota. One day, my professor,
Jack Stark, asked me if I had heard from Caltech, and I said, "Yes, I got an
offer." "Did you reply and accept?" he asked. I said, "No." He said, "Well,
for Christ's sake accept the offer!" I had heard how tough it was at Caltech, and
I thought that probably I couldn't hack it there. But I said, "Yes sir, I'll accept."
Wallace: A few months later I was on my way to Caltech, on the Southern Pacific.
Scott: When did you go to California and to Caltech?
Wallace: I finished at Northwestern in 1938 and went on to Caltech for four years. At the end of the Southern Pacific train trip west, I landed at South Pasadena in what seemed to me to be absolute paradise. Palm trees were swaying, Scrub Jays calling, and the skies were beautifully clear. A high-school friend met me, and we stopped at a stand to have all the orange juice we could drink for ten cents. It was really superb.
I moved into Arms and Mudd, the brand-new buildings for the earth
sciences on the Caltech campus. Dick Jahns was my next-door neighbor. In
later years his name became well-known in California, and nationally, as Dean
of the School of Earth Sciences at Stanford. I consider Dick just about the
smartest person I ever knew. And what a constant flow of jokes, including
bawdy and practical, he brought to every occasion. Caltech provided a superb
After a couple of years I got a master's degree and took preliminary
orals, an exam given to see whether one would be permitted to go ahead for a
Ph.D, which was a separate program from the master's. Caltech did not make it
a continuum as some schools do. Some friends, who I knew to be much smarter
than I, had taken their preliminary orals ahead of me and failed. So when I
came up for my orals a few weeks later, I thought, "This is the end of the road."
Strangely, however, I passed.
I was pleased, of course, that I got through, and went on for the Ph.D. at
Caltech. I started in 1938, and by the end of 1941 the nation was involved in
World War II. But even before that the draft board was breathing down our
necks. Ian Campbell, then a professor at Caltech, and later well-known here in
California as head of the California Division of Mines and Geology, and a lot of other things, was a member of the draft board. I believe he helped protect
some of the students at Caltech until they could get their Ph.Ds.
The Caltech Program and Some Memorable Teachers
Wallace: I thought Caltech had a wonderful program. They had an interesting policy in
those days. For the Ph.D., students were required to write two theses in very
different fields. The program was divided into different areas: vertebrate
paleontology, invertebrate paleontology, structural geology, mineral deposits,
geophysics, and petrography--something like that. So I chose structural geology
and vertebrate paleontology.
A bunch of us chose vertebrate paleontology as a major or minor, I
believe, primarily because in those days Chester Stock had research funds. These
funds came from the Carnegie Institution of Washington; its president at the
time, John C. Merriam, was a paleontologist. There was no National Science
Foundation (NSF), there was no research funding from anywhere, except
perhaps a little from oil companies. Now, when there are many sources of funds
that students can tap into, it is hard to comprehend what a lean and difficult time
it was back then.
Many students who were aimed at fields far from paleontology took
degrees in vertebrate paleontology. For example, Paul Henshaw, who was going
into economic geology and mineral resource work, and later became president of
Homestake Mining Co., wrote his major Ph.D. thesis in vertebrate paleontology.
Also two of my good friends, Bob Hoy and Art Drescher, who also became
economic geologists, and worked for mining companies, did a lot of work in
Scott: Say something about your professors at Caltech.
Wallace: I think educational methods and teaching styles are so very, very important. I
hear people objecting that universities are into research and do not do teaching.
That kind of comment just appalls me, because some of the best teaching
techniques are in the research mode, where students participate in discovery,
questioning, analyzing and thinking.
The whole thought process is so much more active and effective than just
acting like a sponge trying to soak up what the professor says and then spewing
it out on an exam. In my estimation the lecturing-and-regurgitation mode is
scarcely teaching, but many consider it to be. Participation is critical--participatory education, so that the student is seeking answers with a professor, doubting things and doing independent thinking. That is the way to learn how to
think, and how to study anything that comes along in life.
Scott: You are describing academia at its best, which can be very good indeed. It is
the kind of effective teaching that should be emphasized and encouraged.
Wallace: Yes. In illustrating my own good experiences with teaching and research, I will
compare and contrast the teaching styles of four people, Chester Stock, Ian
Campbell, Horace Fraser, and John Peter Buwalda.
Wallace: Chester Stock, who was very popular as a professor in vertebrate paleontology,
specialized in a several-hour lab given twice a week, but I cannot remember that
he lectured at all. He would wander into the lab, where he and we students
would get to talking about anything from philosophy to vertebrate paleo. I
remember that one of the most significant studies in my life was working in
vertebrate paleontology with the little ankle bone called the cuboid. Over a
period of weeks we compared the cuboid bones of the elephant, the shrew, the
dire wolf, and human beings. Stock visited with us in the process--but did not
lecture at us.
The cuboid stuck in my mind, because after going through that exercise, I
never again could consider myself as anything but one of these critters. It
proved to me that I definitely was related to them. It was such a simple little
bone. All cuboids looked the same, whether of an elephant or a shrew or a
human. To me that was a very important philosophical link with the rest of the
animal world. Anyway, Chester Stock was certainly the epitome of participatory
education--participating, questioning, and inventing new ideas.
Wallace: Ian Campbell was a very different person and had a very different teaching
technique. He was people-oriented, and his style was to relate personally to
individuals. He did that so well that many of his students named their sons Ian.
One could not help but want to emulate this scholar--such a warm, capable
person. He became president of such prestigious organizations as the Geologic
Society of America, the Society of Economic Geologists, and the Mineralogical
Society of America. I do not particularly remember the learning processes in his classes, although I took several under him, and then became a lab assistant
for him in one of his classes.
Wallace: Next I'll mention Horace Fraser, a Canadian who taught ore mineralogy. He
was a taskmaster, driving us to work hard, and to memorize chemical
compositions of hundreds of minerals. Those are three very different styles of
teaching, and all are effective. It was marvelous to have those three styles
represented so clearly in my background by those three Caltech professors.
Scott: Those are three very different styles, but evidently they all worked quite well.
Wallace: They all worked--each filled in a niche between the others.
John Peter Buwalda: A Contrast
Wallace: Another teacher I shall describe was Dr. John Peter Buwalda, who became my
Ph.D. thesis advisor--that is, the thesis on the San Andreas fault. Chester Stock
was my adviser on the vertebrate paleontology thesis. Dr. Buwalda was revered
but also feared, I believe. In class he never let the students know his thoughts
about any geologic theory or situation. His teaching technique was to let
students prepare reports on various subjects, then have them report their findings
to the rest of the class. He remained the Sphinx. That technique has worked
well for some professors, but we all wished that we could have some exchange
with this famous geologist. I had very few conversations with him, even about
progress on my thesis.
After the war, when I was offered the teaching position at Washington
State College, I still did not have my degree in hand. Although I had completed
everything and had passed my defense-of-thesis exam, Dr. Buwalda had
procrastinated in taking the necessary papers to the administrative office. Not
knowing how to handle this touchy situation, I asked Ian Campbell to intercede.
In about 10 days I had my sheepskin in hand and was acceptable to Washington
Scott: Before you leave Caltech, talk a little about some of the other things you
experienced along the way. I know for example that you witnessed at least one
of the famous debates between Bailey Willis of Stanford and Andrew Lawson of
A Trip to Stanford
Wallace: In the spring of 1939 a group of us drove up to Stanford for a meeting of the
Cordilleran or western section of the Geological Society of America. It was
wonderful to go up there in the spring when all the fruit trees were in bloom.
But I guess the highlight was hearing Bailey Willis and Andy Lawson argue. It
was traditional that they would disagree and have a shouting match at any of
these meetings. They performed to our satisfaction, and it is something to
remember when I read the multitudinous works of both those great scientists.
Scott: Yes, their disagreements are now legendary.
Two Fossil Finds
Wallace: Another memorable experience was finding some fossils, aided by Chester
Stock. He had access to some funds from the Carnegie Institution of
Washington, which could be used to support field work. It was the only such
money in town. So when any of us wanted to have a weekend out in the hills,
Stock could pay for our food and our gasoline, and we could use a department
With two other friends--Bob Hoy and Art Drescher, whom I have previously mentioned--I went on one trip to the Panoche Hills west of Fresno. We were looking for fossils of aquatic vertebrates, big reptiles, sea-serpent-type critters. We knew the formations where these creatures should be found, and walked the barren hills where those formations cropped out. Our search proved very successful. I think it was Art Drescher who made the first find--the nose of a Mosasaur sticking out of the ground. We hiked back over the hills to the truck to get shovels and equipment. Then while on the way back to the Mosasaur I saw three vertebrae (neck bones) of a Plesiosaur sticking out of the ground. They looked like a small log, protruding about eight or ten inches out of the bare, shaley ground. Here we had two major fossil finds of big creatures in that one weekend. What excitement!
We all had some previous experience in how to treat fossil finds, so we dug very carefully. You dig them out along the bedding, and finally get down with a toothbrush and small tools to clear details. We put burlap coated with plaster-of-paris over them to protect them, and ended up leaving both of them at the site for many months. Later we worked to excavate them and carry them back. Many others got involved in the later digging. Some of the digging went on in the summertime, and we had big cloth canopies over the site to protect the crew from the San Joaquin Valley sunshine.
It became a real "dig," and the Plesiosaur ended up on a wall at Caltech.
It more or less covered a wall, 10 ft. by 15 ft. The skeleton was complete,
except for the head. The bones I had found sticking up were neck bones. The
head was gone, but all the rest was preserved, down through the tail, and
including stomach material with bones of little critters the Plesiosaur had eaten.
The Mosasaur turned out to be only the skull. It was perhaps four feet long and
three feet wide, and had the typical big, double-hinged jaw. This was all very
exciting. Good education!
Thesis Work on the San Andreas Fault
Wallace: By the time I completed my MS degree, I pretty well knew that my focus in
geology would be in structural geology. Dr. Buwalda suggested that I try
studying the San Andreas fault near Palmdale, California. I had had very little
experience in real geologic mapping except in a class at Caltech and in Canada.
I had missed a summer field camp at Northwestern University because of a bout
with appendicitis. What stands out in my memory is that I really didn't know
what I was doing, and I realize that is the status of many PhD efforts.
I remember sleeping under the stars in the desert along the San Andreas
fault, listening to the coyotes howl, eating cold Campbell's beef stew of out a
can, and entertaining myself playing my violin. I think the violin prompted extra
efforts by the coyotes. I had just barely enough money to buy the canned soup at
the one small store in Palmdale. Oh, that I had had enough to buy empty land at
that time as Palmdale is now a major urban area.
For decades I felt embarrassed by my thesis work because I did not think
it was sufficiently extensive. The draft board was breathing down my neck and I
had no money for typing or other help with the thesis. But in recent years I have
decided it made no difference, it, plus my minor thesis in vertebrate
paleontology, got me a degree. Recently a friend pointed out that I probably was first to talk about slip rates on faults, something that came so naturally I
never thought it unusual and never bothered to research the history.
It dawned on me recently that the 75 miles of displacement that I had
suggested in the thesis was by far the most anyone had suggested to that date. It
was one of very few papers on the San Andreas fault at the time, especially
including geologic field evidence and geologic mapping. When I think of the
thousands of papers about the fault that have been published since, I really had
some gall to write some things I did. But I now find nothing too awfully bad
about the thesis, and, I have gotten over my decades of embarrassment.
I completed the paper for publication after the war while working for the USGS in Washington, D. C. My wife, Trudy, typed it for me and I worked over the map for publication. The published paper, I know was used in several university classes on structural geology. One professor told me he liked it because it related geomorphology to faulting and tectonics. (Wallace, R.E., "Structure of a Portion of the San Andreas Rift in Southern California," Geological Society of America Bulletin, v.60, 1949, p.781-806.)
Back to contents -- On to next section
U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Page Contact Information: Michael Diggles
Page Last Modified: March 9, 2007