Bretz, J Harlen (1882-1981), Geologist

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 11/29/2007
  • Essay 8382

J Harlen Bretz was a geologist who launched one of the great controversies of modern science by arguing, in the 1920s, that the deep canyons and pockmarked buttes of the arid "scablands" of Eastern Washington had been created by a sudden, catastrophic flood -- not, as most of his peers believed, by eons of gradual erosion. It was a bold challenge to the prevailing principle of "uniformitarianism," which held that the earth was shaped by processes that can be observed in the present. Since a flood of the almost Biblical proportions envisioned by Bretz had never been seen, the idea was dismissed as a throwback to the pre-scientific doctrine of "catastrophism." Not until the 1940s did other geologists begin to present new evidence supporting the flood theory. Satellite imagery in the 1970s provided the final vindication. Bretz had the satisfaction of living long enough to see his once heretical ideas become the new orthodoxy. In 1979, at age 96, he received the Penrose Medal, geology's highest honor.  He later reportedly told his son: "All my enemies are dead, so I have no one to gloat over" (Smithsonian).

Michigan Farmer’s Son

J Harlen Bretz did not enter the world with that name. The county birth registrar recorded his name as "Harlan J. Bretz" when he was born, on September 2, 1882, in the small town of Saranac, in central Michigan’s Ionia County. He was listed as "Harland J. Bretz" in the 1900 Census. He entered college in 1901 as "J. Harlen Bretz." He dropped the period after the "J" around the time he completed graduate studies in geology at the University of Chicago in 1913. According to his two children, his given name was actually "Harley." Most of his friends and associates in later life simply called him "Doc."

He was the oldest of five children of Oliver Joseph Bretz and Rhoda Maria Howlett. His father, a farmer, was a descendant of John Bretz, an early settler in Ohio. Bretz was proud of his German heritage. In a family genealogy, published in 1949, he described in detail the hardships encountered by German immigrants to the Midwest and praised their "love of liberty, of husbandry, of home" (Bretz, 1949, p. 6).

Raised a Methodist, Bretz intended to become a missionary when he entered Albion College in Albion, Michigan, in 1901. An innate skepticism turned him toward science instead. His first scientific paper was his senior thesis, "Winter Field Work in Botany," published in the Seventh Report of the Michigan Academy of Science. He concluded the paper with a modest disclaimer: "Different obstacles might be met, different results obtained than I have mentioned. This paper is presented simply as a pregnant suggestion" (Bretz, 1905). Few of his subsequent papers would demonstrate that degree of tentativeness.

Bretz graduated from Albion in May 1905. The following year, he married Fanny B. Challis, the daughter of a Methodist minister, whom he had met while both were students at Albion. In the summer of 1906, after a honeymoon in Bay View, Michigan, Bretz completed a graduate course at the University of Michigan in Flint. He began teaching biology at a Flint high school that fall. According to his biographer, John Soennichsen, Bretz asked for a fairly substantial raise at the end of the school year. When the request was denied, he accepted a teaching job in Seattle, and the young couple decamped for the Northwest.

Teaching in Seattle

Bretz taught in three different Seattle high schools during the next four years, beginning with Washington High School (later renamed Broadway) in 1907, where he taught history and physiography (the study of the physical features of the earth’s surface). He moved on to Franklin the next year, and then to Queen Anne High School for a two-year stint beginning in 1909. School district records show that he was assigned to teach only physiography at Franklin and Queen Anne. Whether as a result of his classroom experience or because of his own curiosity, he was becoming increasingly interested in the field of earth science.

In 1910, an enumerator for the U.S. Census reported that "Haelew" and Fanny B. Bretz, respectively 27 and 28, were renting a house at 115 W 78th Street, in the Greenwood Park Addition, with Fanny’s sister, Bertha M. Challis, 24. Bretz was teaching at Queen Anne and spending weekends exploring the geology of the Puget Sound region. The work led to his first significant geological paper, titled the "Glacial Lakes of Puget Sound," published by the Chicago-based Journal of Geology in late 1910.

Bretz later recalled that it was during this same year that he was introduced to the puzzling geology of the Columbia Plateau. The U.S. Geological Survey had just released a topographic map of the Quincy Basin, including the Grand Coulee. Bretz was intrigued by what he saw on the map: a huge dry canyon; big, round holes; several cliffs that had once clearly been waterfalls -- in a region where there wasn’t any water. However, he wouldn’t actually visit the Columbia Plateau and its mysterious scablands for several years.

Bretz’s brief career as a Seattle high school teacher ended in 1911. He spent the summer on further studies of glaciation in the Puget Sound area, with the help of a small grant from the State Board of Geological Survey. He began graduate studies in geology at the University of Chicago in the fall. He completed his Ph.D., summa cum laude, in just two years. His summer field studies became the basis for his dissertation, titled Glaciation of the Puget Sound Region, and published by the Washington State Geological Survey in 1913. The dissertation -- the first detailed study of the geology of Puget Sound -- was marked by characteristics that would distinguish all of Bretz’s subsequent work as a geologist: a reliance on empiricism rather than theory, careful observation and documentation of what he found in the field, and an impatience with "armchair theorists" who didn’t share his enthusiasm for field work.

Gumshoe Geologist

Bretz spent a year on the faculty of the University of Washington after completing his graduate studies. He then accepted an invitation from Rollin D. Salisbury, one of his mentors at the University of Chicago, to return to his alma mater. He spent the remainder of his career there, as Instructor in Geology (1914-1915), Assistant Professor (1915-1921), Associate Professor (1921-1926), and Professor (1926-1947).

Photographs taken during these years show a man of medium height, compactly built, with a neatly trimmed mustache and wire-rimmed glasses. He became bald at a fairly young age, a trait he shared with many of his ancestors (as he noted, with a scientist’s detachment, in his family genealogy). In the field, he often wore a construction worker’s tin hat, given to him during the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. He enhanced his professorial image with a pipe, favoring the Edgeworth brand of premium tobacco.

He has been described as "an odd mix of polish and roughness" (The Seattle Times, 2003). As a teacher, he pushed his students hard. Those turning in sloppy work could expect stinging rebukes. He had a ribald sense of humor, characterized by what he called "recurrent earthiness." He enjoyed making wine. He liked to challenge students to find the wine cellar hidden behind a bookcase in his basement. A practical joker, he would lock them in the basement after sending them on the quest. To get out, they had to find a secret lock and key. "He was one of the real characters in geology," says Victor R. Baker, a geologist at the University of Arizona. "He liked telling jokes. He liked going on family trips. But he was also an extremely difficult person to live with, I'm sure. He was tough on his wife and family, and probably a bit full of himself" (Baker interview).

He was also a flexible, creative thinker, deeply interested in the world around him, with a gift for eloquence, particularly in describing the landscape that he came to know so well. "The region is unique," he once wrote of the scablands. "Let the observer take the wings of the morning to the uttermost parts of the earth: He will nowhere find its likeness" (Bretz, 1928, p. 446).

Bretz began to explore the scablands -- so named because parts resemble partially healed wounds cut deep into the epidermis of earth -- in the summer of 1922. He returned every summer for the next seven years, usually accompanied by his wife, their two young children (Rudolph, born in Seattle in 1914, and Rhoda, born in Chicago in 1918), a collie dog, and several students. They traveled west in a Dodge sedan, with a tent on the front bumper, a grub box on the back, and bedrolls tied to the sides. It was gumshoe geology, much of it done on foot because the terrain was too rugged for motor vehicles, trying to unlock the mysteries of one of the most unusual places on earth.

"Outrageous Hypothesis"

Bretz had built a modest reputation as an expert on stream and glacial erosion by the time he turned his attention to the scablands. He quickly became convinced that neither kind of erosion could account for what he saw there: huge, dry channels; great chunks of prairie stripped down to bare basalt; massive boulders of granite scattered in places far from any natural source of granite; circular divots in the earth that were so big, cattle could be hidden in them; cataracts -- one five times as wide as Niagara -- that had once clearly been waterfalls, in an area that gets less rainfall in a year than Seattle does in a month. The depth of the channels, the fact that the channel bottoms were filled with coarse gravel carried in from outside the area, the scouring of the basalt bedrock: to Bretz, all this suggested a sudden, violent flood.

Bretz introduced his flood theory in a paper published in late 1923. He included a detailed geomorphic map of what he called "the Channeled Scabland," showing a network of branching and interconnecting channels that he concluded could only have been carved by a fast and furious inundation. "All other hypotheses meet fatal objections," he wrote. "These remarkable records of running water on the Columbia Plateau and in the valleys of the Snake and Columbia Rivers cannot be interpreted in terms of ordinary river action and ordinary valley development." He concluded with a simple statement: "It was a debacle which swept the Columbia Plateau" (Bretz, 1923, pp. 621, 649).

The reaction from the geologic community was, in a word, glacial. Since the 1790s, the science of geology had been framed by the principle of "uniformitarianism": the idea that geologic change in the past resulted from the same slow, steady processes at work today. Bretz's flood, with elements that suggested the Biblical story of Noah, seemed like a reversion to a pre-scientific era. It was, said one critic, an "outrageous hypothesis."

Bretz was invited to defend his theory at a meeting sponsored by the Geological Society of Washington D.C., in 1927. Six other geologists presented opposing points of view. Bretz disdainfully referred to the group as the "challenging elders." He was nearly 45 years old at the time, a tenured professor at the University of Chicago, and supremely self-confident. He seemed to relish his self-definition as a lonely avatar of scientific truth. "Understanding the Scablands involves imagination and courageous departure from accepted views," he once wrote, implying that his detractors were unimaginative cowards (Bretz, 1959, p 10).

As paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) has pointed out, Bretz’s critics were not "benighted dogmatists." They had good reasons to doubt the plausibility of catastrophic flooding, based on his original arguments. For one thing, he had ignored the crucial question of where the water for the flood could have come from. In a later paper, he suggested the source might have been a melting glacier somewhere near the present-day city of Spokane, but he offered no reasonable explanation for how that much ice could melt that fast.

In fact, the primary source of Bretz’s flood had already been identified, by a geologist named Joseph Thomas Pardee (1871-1960). It was Glacial Lake Missoula, created when the toe of an advancing glacier blocked the Clark Fork River in Idaho. The lake, named after the present-day city where it had been deepest, covered much of western Montana during the last Ice Age. Pardee described it in detail in a 1910 paper. He did not make any connection between the lake and the scablands until many years later.

In 1925, however, Pardee wrote to Bretz and suggested that a collapse of the ice dam holding back Lake Missoula would have unleashed a mighty flood. Bretz briefly mentioned the possibility in a 1933 paper but did not otherwise pursue the suggestion. He "seemed singularly uninterested in finding the missing piece that would render his story coherent," says Gould. Instead, he doggedly continued to amass evidence about the effects, rather than the source, of the flood. He "stayed in the scablands, while the answer sat in western Montana" (Gould, p. 200).


The pieces of the puzzle did not begin to fall into place until June 18, 1940, at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Seattle. The topic was the "Quaternary Geology of the Pacific"  ("Quaternary" referring to the last 1.6 million years). Bretz was invited to attend both the meeting and a post-meeting field trip, during which Yale University geologist Richard Foster Flint planned to demonstrate why the scablands were not cataclysmic in origin. He declined the invitation, saying all his ideas were already on the record and the field evidence could speak for itself.

The last speaker was Joseph Pardee, soon to retire from a long career with the Geological Survey. As mild-mannered as Bretz was forceful, Pardee spoke in a quiet voice, delivering a paper titled "Ripple Marks (?) in Glacial Lake Missoula." He had measured current ripples in northwestern Montana that were as high as 50 feet and spaced as far apart as 500 feet. The ripples -- created by surges of moving sediment -- had been left behind by the sudden draining of the lake. Reviving his old theory, he speculated that the lake had eventually become deep enough to lift up the ice that had dammed it. Some 500 cubic miles of water burst through the remnants of the ice barrier with almost unfathomable force. The only place for it to go was out over the scablands.

Additional evidence in support of the flood theory came from aerial photographs taken by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1950, in connection with the Columbia Basin irrigation project. They were intriguing enough that Bretz -- then nearly 70 years old and officially retired -- returned to the scablands for new field studies in 1952. He found still more giant current ripples, so big and widely spaced that their significance could not be discerned from the ground. In all, he documented fifteen "ripple fields." Reviewing all the new data in 1959, Bretz concluded that there was now "adequate field evidence" to show that there had been several floods in the scablands, not just one, and that their source had been the repeated damming and draining of Glacial Lake Missoula. "The flood theory was without a plausible cause for some years," he noted. "Then the addition of two and two to make four occurred, a simple addition that should have been made much earlier" (Bretz, 1959, p. 52).

The final confirmation came from satellite images taken in 1974. "A half century ago J. Harlen Bretz, a University of Chicago geologist, suggested that the barren, heavily scarred region of eastern Washington had been made that way by a flood of phenomenal dimensions," The New York Times reported. "While his proposal was long controversial, a photograph made from an earth satellite some 570 miles overhead has now provided clear evidence for the scope and nature of this prehistoric catastrophe."

Father of "Neo-Catastrophism"

Bretz’s work on the scablands led to a new intellectual framework for the science of geology. Uniformitarianism gave way to what is sometimes dubbed "neo-catastrophism" -- the principle that some landscapes may experience incremental, ordinary change over long periods of time but then undergo an episode of rapid, profound change. The new paradigm was in place by 1965, when the International Association for Quaternary Research met in Boulder, Colorado. Among several field excursions organized for the meeting was one to the Columbia Basin. Bretz was unable to attend because of poor health. But the next day, the party sent him a telegram which ended with this comment: "We are all now catastrophists" (quoted in Gould, p. 202).

A new generation of geologists has since shown that there were perhaps a hundred, and possibly more Ice Age Floods, most from Glacial Lake Missoula but a few from glacial reservoirs in British Columbia. Evidence of similar "outburst floods" has been found around the world and even beyond it: from Utah to Swedish Lapland to the Chuja Valley in south-central Siberia, as well as on Mars.

Bretz went on to other topics after he completed his original studies of the scablands in the 1920s. He studied Glacial Lake Chicago, a predecessor of modern Lake Michigan. He participated in a 1933 expedition to Greenland, financed and led by Louise A. Boyd (1887-1975), a wealthy amateur photographer, under the auspices of the American Geographical Society. In the late 1930s, he began studying the origin of limestone caves in Missouri. He eventually investigated more than 100 caves in 17 states, Mexico, and Bermuda. His work provides much of the scientific basis for speleology (the study and exploration of caves) today.

He retired from the University of Chicago in 1947, but he was nearly as productive as a professor emeritus as he had been while a member of the active faculty. His post-retirement body of work includes Geology of the Chicago Region (1955), The Caves of Missouri (1956), Washington's Channeled Scabland (1959), Caves of Illinois (1961), and Geomorphic History of the Ozarks (1965) -- in addition to his 1949 Incomplete Genealogy of the Family of John Bretz Of Fairfield Co., Ohio, with a Partial History of One Line of Descent in this Family. Even in his family genealogy, Bretz remained the ever-observant geologist. "The landscape," he wrote, describing a family cemetery, "is a pleasing mature topography, pre-Illinoian in age, only 10 to 20 miles south of the margin of glaciated southern Ohio. Valley trains fill the major valleys but there is no outwash in the valley near the cemetery" (p. 10).

Bretz died at age 98, on February 3, 1981, at his home in Homewood, Illinois. Survivors included a son, Rudolf C. Bretz, of Malibu, California, and a daughter, Rhoda Bretz Riley, of Homewood. His wife, Fanny, had died in 1972.

He had achieved iconic status long before his death, an image solidified when the Geological Society of America awarded him the Penrose Medal in 1979. Since then, he’s been almost deified. He’s been the subject of books, television specials, and countless articles, most depicting him as a visionary who stood fast against the dogmatism of his era. It was an image Bretz himself promoted. "Ideas without precedent are generally looked upon with disfavor and men are shocked if their conceptions of an orderly world are challenged," he wrote in 1928. The quote has been inscribed on a plaque at the visitors center at Dry Falls State Park, near the remnants of what was once the largest waterfall known to have existed on earth.

No doubt he would have been highly irritated to have been identified as "Jerry H. Bretz" in his obituary in the New York Times.

Sources: Michael Parfit, "The Floods that Carved the West, " Smithsonian, April 1995; J Harlen Bretz, An Incomplete Genealogy Of The Family Of John Bretz Of Fairfield Co., Ohio, With A Partial History Of One Line Of Descent In This Family (University of Chicago, 1949), available online as accessed November 2007  (;  Bretz, "Winter Field Work in Botany," Seventh Report of the Michigan Academy of Science (Lansing, Mich.: Wynkoop Hallenbeck, State Printers, 1905); Bretz, "Glacial Lakes of Puget Sound," Journal of Geology, Vol. 18, No. 5 (September 1910); transcript of interview with Victor R. Baker, "Mystery of the Megaflood," NOVA, September 2005, NOVA website accessed November 2007 (; Craig Welch, "Rock of Ages’ Roiling Tale: Water Carved Arid Washington’s Maze of buttes, Valleys," The Seattle Times, February 10, 2003, p. A-1; Bretz, "The Channeled Scabland of Eastern Washington," Geographical Review Vo. 18, No. 3 (July 1928); Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda’s Thumb (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992); Bretz, Washington’s Channeled Scabland (Olympia, WA.: Department of Conservation, 1959); Walter Sullivan, "Satellite Film Backs View on Early Flood," The New York Times, September 17, 1974, p. 77; "Jerry H. Bretz, Specialist on Effects of Flood, Dies," Ibid., February 10, 1981, p, B-19. See also John Soennichsen, “A Toe in the Water: J Harlen Bretz’s First Field Exploration of Eastern Washington’s Channeled Scablands,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring 2011), 13-20, and Tom Mullen, “The Great Columbia Flood,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring 2005), 40-44.

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