Nathaniel Southgate Shaler

Nathaniel Southgate Shaler

By Jim Reis and reprinted here with his permission

Nathaniel Southgate Shaler was born February 20, 1841 on Front Street in Newport to Nathaniel Burger Shaler and Ann Southgate, daughter of Richard Southgate and Ann W Hinde. He is a descendant of the Southgate family, for whom the city of Southgate is named.

He began studying Latin, Greek and mathematics in a school conducted at the Newport Barracks when ten, and received a private tutor at fifteen.  By age 18,  he had committed no less than 50,000 verses of Latin, Greek and English literature to memory.  Shaler entered Harvard at age 18 and studied earth sciences with the renowned naturalist, Louis Agassiz.  He graduated summa cum laude as a Bachelor of Science in 1862.

Upon on his return to Northern Kentucky he became a Union captain of artillery volunteers. Shaler's decision to join the Union Army was not an easy one.  His family owned slaves and his own feelings leaned towards states rights, a demand of the Confederates.  He took the view, however, that if the South was allowed to form a new nation, there would be constant bickering and wars between it and the northern states.  And with Northern Kentucky on the border, it would become a periodic battleground.  For those reasons, Shaler felt the Union must be preserved.

He was a fencer, a natural horseman and even in his fifties counted a day lost if he was not able to walk six miles.  During the Civil War he recruited the 5th Artillery Battery for the Union and took rank as its captain in 1862.  Shaler Battery, which he fortified when a Confederate army threatened Cincinnati in 1862, still can be seen at Evergreen Cemetery.  Recurring bouts of severe bronchitis forced him to resign in 1864.

Harvard invited him to instruct paleontology and in 1865 he took over teaching zoology and geology.  He traveled in Europe from 1866 to 1868 when he collected 30,000 fossils for the Museum of Comparative Zoology, did field work in the Alps, France and Italy.  He returned to Harvard as a full professor of paleontology in 1869.  Kentucky's governor appointed him commonwealth geologist in 1873 and supervised the state's first survey of natural resources which lead the way for the coal industry to rise.  Harvard offered him its professorship of geology in 1884 and he accepted.

He made Harvard the center for geological studies in America.  He textbook, The First Book of Geology was not only the most widely used volume on geology, but also translated into German, Russian and Polish.  His works contains 29 books and 234 articles on geological surveys, museum reports and literary essays.  Shaler's Introduction to Geology became Harvard's most popular class and his students included every undergraduate who entered Harvard after 1884 including Theodore Roosevelt.

Shaler was among the first American academics to advocate summer instruction. He pioneered the first summer school for geology at Cumberland Gap in 1875 and led Harvard's geology majors on extensive summer field expeditions. He revived Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School in 1886 and is the father of Harvard's Graduate School of Applied Science.

A Boston Herald story in 1891 said Shaler was also well known for helping poor students pay their way through college and was an avid football fan, who made pep talks before games.  His wife was Sophia Page, sister-in-law of Newport Congressman Albert Berry.  The Shalers had two daughters.

When he died on April 10, 1906 in Cambridge, Harvard honored him with ceremonies reserved for its most illustrious laureates.

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