Billings, Marland P. (earth scientist)


(1902-1996) American Structural Geologist

When John McPhee contrasted mountain building events from the East Coast of the United States with those from the West Coast in his book In Suspect Terrain, he did so metaphorically by describing geologists. In contrast to the glitzy modern image portrayed for the geologically young mountains of the West Coast, the Appalachians were portrayed as a New England geologist. This gritty, aging New Englander, tough as nails and self-sacrificing yet with a wry sense of humor, is personified by Marland Billings. But this image should not convey the idea of a geologist who is hopelessly rooted in archaic theories and methods. Rather, the New England geologists began unraveling the histories of unbelievably complex geologic terranes well before the West Coast geologists. When Marland Billings began his assault on the New England Appalachians, they were considered to be largely Precam-brian crystalline rocks that were so complex that they would never be understood. Billings was undaunted. Using the most modern of petrologic and structural techniques at the time and devising new ones as he went, Billings and a group of some of the top geologists in the world, many of whom he trained, put New England into context. Three distinct Paleozoic (535 million-245 million years ago) orogenies (mountain building events) emerged (Taconian, Acadian, and Al-leghenian) and the rock units were assigned ages, many by continuous long-distance correlations with rocks that contain fossils. New England should really be viewed not as a stodgy old regional study but as an early cutting-edge and continuing regional study.

With some background experience in the Alps and the Rocky Mountains, Marland Billings began his work in central New Hampshire on Paleozoic rocks where fossils had been discovered. From there, he worked his way into the regionally metamorphosed rocks that comprise most of New England. These studies stretched into Vermont and throughout Massachusetts and even into southern Maine. At the time, having Marland Billings work on an area meant that it would soon be brought into a modern context. He is probably best known for his research on the White Mountain magma series and surrounding rocks where he and his wife, Kay, trudged through the Presidential Range, the most rugged terrain in New England. These observations set the stage for a reinterpretation of the geologic style of New England.

Marland Billings was born on March 11, 1902, in Boston, Massachusetts. He received his precollegiate education at Roxbury Latin School, Massachusetts, before enrolling at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He earned a bachelor of arts (magna cum laude), master of arts, and Ph.D. in geology in 1923, 1925, and 1927, respectively, and was an instructor during his last year. He accepted a position at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania upon graduation but returned to Harvard University as a faculty member in 1931. He remained at Harvard University throughout his career, serving as department chair from 1946-1951 as well as curator of the Geological Museum. He retired to professor emeritus in 1972. During World War II, Billings served with the U.S. Office of Field Service in the South Pacific in 1944 where he evaluated strategic nickel deposits in New Caledonia. Mar-land Billings married geologist and former student Katherine Stevens Fowler in 1938. They had one son. Marland Billings died on October 9, 1996, in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Marland Billings was an author of numerous scientific articles in international journals and professional volumes. He is also the author of the widely adopted textbook Structural Geology that was first published in 1942 but still used at colleges into the 1970s. He also was an author on the book Bedrock Geology of New Hampshire and of the state geological map of New Hampshire (1955). Many remember him best for his avid participation in the annual field trip of the New England Intercollegiate Geological Conference. In recognition of his research contributions to geology, Marland Billings received numerous honors and awards. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He received honorary doctorates from Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, and the University of New Hampshire. In 1987, he was presented with the Penrose Medal, the top award from the Geological Society of America.

Billings’s service to the profession was exceptional. Among numerous panels and committees, he served as the president of the Geological Society of America (1959) and the vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1946-1947. He was also president of the Boston Geological Society in 1940. He was a member of the Mineral Resources Committee of New Hampshire from 1935 on and at that time he was the de facto state geologist. From 1958, he consulted for the Metropolitan District Commission for Boston, Massachusetts, and evaluated the bedrock for virtually all of the water supply and other tunnels around Boston at that time.

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