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Dana, James Dwight (1813–1895)

by Ann Mozley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

James Dwight Dana (1813-1895), mineralogist and geologist, was born on 12 February 1813 in Utica, United States, the eldest son of James Dana and his wife Harriet, née Dwight. After education in Utica and at Yale College, where he studied under Benjamin Silliman, Dana left in 1833, before graduating, to serve as mathematical instructor on a cruise of the Mediterranean in the Delaware.

At his friend Professor Asa Gray's suggestion he accepted the post of geologist and mineralogist to the United States Exploring Expedition in 1838. Commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes, U.S.N., the expedition was the first commissioned by the United States government for hydrographic and scientific survey of the Antarctic, the Pacific islands and the north-west American coast. Its strong scientific corps included two civilians who, like Dana, were to publish data on Australia: Horatio Hale (1817-1896), the philologist, and Dr Charles Pickering (1805-1878), curator of the American Academy of Sciences. The expedition sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, and after sixteen months in the Pacific reached Sydney on 29 November 1839.

Dana, with other members of the scientific contingent, remained for some three months in New South Wales while the squadron carried out its Antarctic cruise. Most of this time was spent at Newcastle and in the Hunter River valley where he examined the coal measures, and made a collection of fossils. Early in 1840 he explored the Illawarra district with Rev. William Branwhite Clarke and happy recollections of this journey recur in his later correspondence with Clarke: 'That Illawarra District is a perfect gem of a place for Geology … it is one of the loveliest spots of the globe'.

Dana presented some of his conclusions in a chapter of his report on the geology of the expedition, published in Philadelphia in 1849. It was accompanied by an Atlas containing fourteen plates of Australian fossils. Publishing a decade after the collection of his material, Dana was anticipated to some extent by other writers, whose findings he incorporated in his work. None the less, in his detailed record of the stratigraphy and palaeontology of the coal measures he contributed largely to understanding the great carboniferous development in New South Wales. His conclusions supported Clarke's opinion, contested at that time, that there was perfect conformity between the upper and underlying beds in the coal formations, and that all belonged lower than the coal deposits of India and Europe in the palaeozoic period. Dana's other important finding was the theory of valley making in the colony, later elaborated in his Characteristics of Volcanoes (New York, 1890). Supplementing his own observations by information from Hale's account of his journey across the Blue Mountains, Dana dismissed the theory of original escarpments which Charles Darwin had postulated in 1844, and attributed the deep sandstone gorges of the country to the continuing effects of running water. His chapter on the geology of the colony included also a lucid and finely illustrated description of the basaltic outcrops of the Illawarra region with an imaginative analysis of causes.

The United States Exploring Expedition sailed from Sydney on 19 March 1840, and returned to America in June 1842. The Peacock, which carried the scientific corps, was wrecked and sank off the mouth of the Columbia River in 1842, but the company escaped with their equipment and records. Dana spent the next thirteen years in Washington preparing his reports. In 1840 he became editor of the American Journal of Science in succession to Benjamin Silliman whose daughter, Harriet, he married in 1844. Five years later he succeeded Silliman as professor of natural history at Yale College. He was the foremost American geologist of his time, writing more than 200 books and published papers, and his capacity for the meticulous marshalling of facts and for original theories that have stood the test of time was ably demonstrated in his observations on New South Wales. He died on 14 April 1895.

Dana's colleague on the expedition, Horatio Hale, in his report, Ethnography and Philology (Philadelphia, 1846) contributed a notable section on the language, character and customs of the Australian Aboriginals. While in the colony, Hale had visited the mission stations run by Rev. William Watson in the Wellington valley and Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld at Lake Macquarie, and his report on the phonology and etymology of the Aboriginal language was based on records compiled by these two observers as well as his own. From his own research Hale endorsed their opinion that the tribes of Australia were of one stock and spoke languages which, while different in some aspects, showed evidence of a common origin.

Charles Pickering, the chief zoologist of the expedition, published some further brief notices about the Australian Aboriginals in his Races of Man (London, 1850).

Select Bibliography

  • C. Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition 1838-1842 (Lond, 1852)
  • R. Tate, ‘Inaugural Address’, Report of the Meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, 5th meeting, 1893, pp 15-16
  • A. Mozley, ‘James Dwight Dana in New South Wales, 1839-1840’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 97, part 6A, 1964, pp 185-91
  • James Dwight Dana letters (State Library of New South Wales, and Australian Academy of Science Library)
  • William Branwhite Clarke diary, 1839-40 (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

Ann Mozley, 'Dana, James Dwight (1813–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dana-james-dwight-1953/text2347, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 18 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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