Raphael Pumpelly was one of America's most noted economic geologists, working in many parts of the United States at a time when growing industrialization was creating a need for expert evaluation of the nation's resources. Born in upstate New York in 1837 and trained at the Royal Academy of Mines in Freiberg, Germany, Pumpelly was a transitional figure in American geology.
His life spanned a period that began when most geologists were generalists and ended with geology's emergence as a full-time paid profession with several rapidly growing specialties.
Pumpelly himself had a varied career. He developed a silver mine in Arizona while dodging Apache bullets, served as expert adviser to Japan, and administered geological surveys for Missouri and for the United States Geological Survey under John Wesley Powell. He studied the origin of copper ores using the new petrographic microscope and developed a comprehensive theory to account for the origin of loess.
He also did a classic study of the structure of the Green Mountains that contributed to a better understanding of the problems surrounding the well-known "Taconic controversy."
Exploration and fieldwork had great appeal for Pumpelly. In 1863 he was the first American geologist to explore parts of China, and in the 1880s, while conducting a major geographical and geological survey of the Northwest for the Northern Pacific Railroad, he discovered glaciers in what is now Glacier National Park.
At the age of 65 Pumpelly realized a long-standing dream when, with support from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, he led a team of geographers and archaeologists on an expedition to Russian Turkestan to search for the original speakers of the Indo-European group of languages.
His investigations of the effect of changing climate on early human beings resulted in pioneering contributions to the prehistoric archaeology of Central Asia and to the study of the environmental factors that have affected the growth and decline of prehistoric cultures.
Pumpelly's eminence as a scientist was recognized by his election to the National Academy of Sciences and to the presidency of the Geological Society of America, but he counted many artists and writers among his friends, including John La Farge and Henry Adams. He enjoyed a lifestyle that allowed time for independent research, European travel with his family, membership in gentlemen's clubs, and ownership of homes in Newport, Rhode Island, and Dublin, New Hampshire.
Pumpelly's life as a geologist and explorer serves to illustrate the growth of geology during what has been called geology's Heroic age, including developments in petrology, geomorphology, structural geology, and soil science. His work contributed to the growth of different fields within geology during this transitional period, and he retained the freedom to pursue a variety of research interests, a freedom that later specialists did not have.