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Earth Sciences at Syracuse University

The Department of Earth Sciences is a community of scholars with diverse interests in the nature of our planet and research expertise in three broad and overlapping disciplinary themes: Solid Earth Sciences, Paleoclimatology, and Water Resources. The department is a medium-sized, dynamic group of scientists involved in and heavily committed to research and education in these fields. Field-based research programs bring our faculty and students to every continent on the planet to collect observational data, and our state-of-the art laboratory and computing facilities allow for sophisticated analytical and numerical study of Earth systems. Our department is a leader in cross-campus interdisciplinary research and educational programs, including those in water science. Our research is recognized nationally and internationally, and receives significant and consistent external funding. Our students are broadly trained in field work, geochemical and geophysical methods, quantitative analysis, and professional skills, preparing scholar-scientists sought-after by employers; accordingly, our graduates are well placed in academic, government, and private sector positions.

Mission Statement

The mission of the Department of Earth Sciences at Syracuse University is to advance our understanding of Earth processes through cutting-edge research at the forefront of the discipline. We aim to pursue interdisciplinary scientific research that is nationally and internationally recognized, and addresses the most challenging scientific and societal needs. We aim to attract the best and brightest scholars from around the world, and provide an academically rigorous, inclusive student experience that promotes experiential learning, interdisciplinary scholarship, and a culture of innovation and discovery, and which broadly provides students the technical and professional skills needed for successful careers.

Department History

Origins of the Department of Earth Sciences at SU:

The Earth Sciences department began as the Department of Geology, and its origins are tightly coupled with the founding of Syracuse University (SU) in the late 1800s. In 1873, Alexander Winchell, a professor geology, zoology and botany, was appointed as the first chancellor of SU. By 1876, he organized a school of geology that provided instruction in elementary and advanced geology, and the first geology classes were given in Hall of Languages on the SU hill. At that time, Geology was required of seniors in the classical curriculum during their third term.


In addition to his role as the first chancellor of SU, Winchell was a productive and widely recognized geoscientist during his time. He cofounded of the Geological Society of America (GSA) and The American Geologist. He has been called the “Father of GSA” and served as the society’s third president in 1891. The Department has recognized these contributions by establishing the Alexander Winchell Distinguished Alumni Award, which is awarded to our most outstanding alumni.


Portrait of Chancellor Alexander Winchell
Chancellor Alexander Winchell

Winchell left SU in 1879, but geology had been established as a required course at the university. Winchell was replaced by Lucien M. Underwood, a professor of geology, botany and zoology, and also a professor of mineralogy, who had been a student of Winchell's and obtained his PhD from SU in 1879. Underwood was followed by many others who taught geology in the late 1800’s, including: Rev. Charles W. Hargitt, Edmund Chase Quereau, Frank Smalley, Oscar Rogers Whitford, and Edward Henry Kraus.

Portrait of Dr. Lucien M. Underwood
Dr. Lucien Underwood


In 1900, Thomas Cramer Hopkins was appointed professor of geology. Hopkins was educated at Stanford University and received his PhD from the University of Chicago. Prior to joining SU, Hopkins had been an instructor in chemistry at DePauw University, assistant state geologist of Arkansas, and assistant professor of geology at Penn State College. Thomas Cramer Hopkins (1861-1935) was an inspirational, well liked, and respected teacher. Often the Geology Club met at his home located adjacent to the campus. In 1958, William B. Heroy endowed scholarships for the outstanding junior and senior majoring in geology in honor of the beloved professor.


In 1906, Charles Henry Richardson (PhD, Dartmouth) joined the faculty, followed by Burnett Smith (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) in 1907. Richardson rose through the ranks from instructor to professor and ultimately Chairman of the Department of Mineralogy by 1909. In 1907, the small department of three faculty (Hopkins, Richardson, and Smith) moved to their new quarters on the third floor of the Lyman Hall of Natural History (which also housed the Departments of Biology, Zoology and Forestry). A year later, the Geology Department library also moved to Lyman from the Hall of Languages. William B. Heroy (PhB, 1909) was the first vice-president of the Department’s Geology Club, which was founded in 1905. W.B. Heroy went on to become one of the strongest benefactors and supporters of the Department.


Picture of Lyman Hall
Lyman Hall


The first part of the 1900's was a busy one, although activities were interrupted by two World Wars and seriously curtailed by the Great Depression. George B. Cressey became chairman of the combined Department of Geology and Geography in 1931. Hopkins and Richardson both retired that year. By 1945, the Department consisted of five faculty members, and some 50 advanced degrees had been awarded.


After World War II, what was the Department of Geology and Geography was split and Earl T. Apfel became Chair of the Department of Geology. Apfel was followed by William M. Merrill as Chairman in 1958. The Department changed its name in 1993 from the Department of Geology to the Department of Earth Sciences, to more accurately reflect the range of teaching and research found within the Department. The following individuals have served as Chair of the Department since its split from Geography:

1958 – William M. Merrill
1963 – John J. Prucha
1970 – Ernest H. Muller (interim)
1971 – Daniel F. Merriam (inaugural Jessie Page Heroy Professor and Chairman)
1979 – Ernest H. Muller (interim)
1981 – John Dickey
1988 – John J. Prucha (interim)
1990 – Marion (Pat) Bickford
1993 – Cathryn Newton
2000 – K. Doug Nelson
2002 – Marion (Pat) Bickford (interim)
2003 – Scott D. Samson
2007 – Jeffery A. Karson
2013 – Donald I. Siegel
2017 – Laura K. Lautz


History of Awards and Scholarships in the Earth Sciences Department:

Numerous scholarships and awards have been established over the years to honor outstanding students and alumni. In 1961, Chauncey D. Holmes provided an award for excellence in beginning geology, which is given annually to students with exemplary performance in introductory courses and who show the most promise in the geosciences. The Newton E. Chute Graduate Award was established in 1975 to be given annually to the graduate student judged outstanding based on scholarship, service to the Department, and professional promise. In 1976 the Faye M. Merriam Scholarship was endowed for a full-time SU undergraduate geology major to be awarded on academic achievement, need and professional promise. The Marjorie Hooker Award, established in 1977 in support of research, is given annually to the thesis or dissertation proposal judged outstanding by the faculty.


Contributions of William B. Heroy, Sr.:

In 1966, William Bayard Heroy (PhB, 1909) approached the University with an offer to contribute money towards a new geology building. Heroy had been supporting the Department through gifts for scholarships, equipment and research during the previous ten years. His offer was graciously accepted and the building named in his honor. The building was completed near the end of 1971 and the Department moved from the third floor of Lyman, where it had been since 1907, to the spacious new Heroy Geology Laboratory. The department still resides in the Heroy Geology Lab today.


Oil painting portrait of William B. Heroy Sr
William B. Heroy Sr.


Heroy also endowed a distinguished chair of geology in honor of his first wife Jessie Minerva Page Heroy (PhB '08). Daniel F. Merriam was the first to occupy this position, which has been held by all subsequent Department Chairs.

Heroy (1883-1971) was active in many geological organizations and had served them in many capacities. He was cognizant of his education as a factor in his success both as a professional geologist and in business, and as a result he gave generously to his alma mater, Syracuse, to Southern Methodist University, where he spent much time in later years, and to the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca. He gave money both to SU and SMU for buildings to house their geology departments. In recognition of his many accomplishments he received many awards and honorary degrees.