James Macelwane

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James Macelwane
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Membership Honorary Member

Father James Bernard Macelwane, S.J (September 28, 1883 - February 15, 1956) was a pioneer in the field of earthquake seismology and the organizer of the Jesuit Seismological Service, with headquarters at St. Louis University, which was an early attempt at a modern seismological network. He also made contributions to exploration geophysics in his collaborations with geophysicist Frank Rieber.

Biography Citation for Honorary Membership

Contributed by Sigmund Hammer

A professional society, like a man, is judged by the company it keeps. In this respect the Society of Exploration Geophysicists is indeed fortunate. On this its Silver Anniversary Meeting, the Society has elected to give public recognition to three of its deserving members who have made important contributions to the development of exploration geophysics and have helped to raise the Society to its present high position in the esteem and respect of its members and of the professional world have the high honor to represent the Society in presenting an Honorary Life Membership to one of these three at this special 25th Anniversary meeting. The exceptional merit which this award implies is measured by the fact that in the entire history of the Society it has been granted prior to this meeting only seven times.

Father James B. Macelwane, S. J., is a geophysicist who has gained world renown by his researches and writings and by the reflected glory of his many eminent students who have been inspired to greatness by his enthusiastic and sympathetic teaching. He has been an outstanding member of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists for twenty years. His annual surveys of geophysical education which have been published in GEOPHYSICS each year since 1950 have become classics. It is appropriate that the Society should recognize Father Macelwane's distinguished service by awarding to him the highest honor which it has in its power to bestow.

Father Macelwane's contributions to exploration geophysics cover a wide range. Probably foremost is the long list of successful students of geophysics which he has inspired and trained. Among these are such great names as Perry Byerly and Earnest A. Hodgson. In 1925 he organized the first educational Department of Geophysics in the Western Hemisphere. In addition to this teaching, he has made important research contributions of his own and has published about 100 papers and articles, principally on seismology and meteorology. He is the author or co-author of six books on physics and geophysics. His own labors have greatly broadened the horizons of the earth sciences.

Many honors have been conferred upon Father Macelwane. To enumerate them all would be unnecessary and tedious. Those of you who would like to check a partial listing may refer to Pages 54 and 55 in your program booklet. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was appointed by President Eisenhower to a six-year term as a member of the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation. He has been chosen by his colleagues for offices of distinction in many scientific societies and is now serving a three-year term as president of the American Geophysical Union. He has been awarded the Bowie Medal of the AGU and several honorary Doctors degrees. He has held many important positions at St. Louis University and is now Dean of the Institute of Technology.

Although Father Macelwane is primarily an educational administrator, he has not neglected practical matters. While a young graduate student and teacher at the University of California in Berkeley from 1921 to 1925, he was a consultant in seismic exploration to the late Frank Rieber of subsequent Sonograph fame. His tri-partite micro-seismic detector system is used by the Navy for detecting and tracking storms at sea. In common with many other geophysicists his duties take him on frequent and long trips to all parts of the world. Very appropriately his students have given him the pseudo-theological title "The Bishop of Tours." On one public occasion, he was presented with a pair of roller skates to help him keep his many appointments. He also has been called an "Earth Quaker" by colleagues who consider it humorous that a Jesuit should be a Quaker. This may, or may not have inspired the title of his popular book "When the Earth Quakes." These intimacies add to the measure Of the greatness of the man.

At many celebrations of the 50th Anniversary of Father Macelwane's entry into the Jesuit order (one of which had the privilege to attend) were heard several expressed opinions that the Order had good reasons indeed to be proud of their distinguished member. The Society of Exploration Geophysicists also is proud to have such an illustrious name on its membership rolls.

Father Macelwane, with a deep appreciation of the honor of acting as spokesman for the Society, hand you this scroll certificate of Honorary Life Membership in the Society of Exploration Geophysicists as a humble token of recognition of your important contributions to our Society and to the great profession which it represents.


That the late Reverend James Bernard Macelwane was well-known in the field of seismology throughout the world is evident from the literature in this field.[1] His scholarly contributions to seismology were numerous and often referred to in the publications of seismologists. It comes as a surprise to many when they learn of his interest in the more practical phases of geophysics, namely, exploration geophysics. Few are aware that he worked with the pioneers in this country in exploration for oil.

As early as 1924 he was retained by the Reiber Exploration Company as a consultant in seismic exploration. He served in the same capacity for the old General Geophysical Company owned by Major Martin Connolly. Nor were his services limited to these two companies.

Early Years

Just as Father Macelwane's eminence in pure seismology bears an unexpected relation to his interest in the applied field, so his early life and more mature years reveal an unpredictable chain of events. Born on September 28, 1883, he was brought up on a farm with his four brothers and three sisters on the northern shore of Sandusky Bay off Lake Erie. He was the oldest of the children to grow up on the farm. Hence, he early learned to be useful in doing the chores. As he grew older he took on the heavier work in the fields, vineyard, and fishing with nets in the bay.

When the work at home was light, he, like other boys and girls in his neighborhood, attended the local public school. As was common at the time, he gave up elementary school education at the age of fifteen to work with his father in the farm and in the fishing business. Even though he was now out of school, he occupied his leisure time in reading and further study. Such liking for study led his parents to think seriously of giving him further opportunities in school. After working on the farm for two years, they decided that he should enter St. John?s High School in Toledo, Ohio. This he did in 1901. Completing three years of high school courses in two years, he was determined to seek admission to the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit Order) to become a missionary priest.


He was admitted in August, 1903, to the Jesuit novitiate in Cleveland, Ohio. Except for several hours of study of Latin and Greek a week, his principal attention for the next two years was given to his religious development as a novice in the Jesuit was suited to his ability and liking. He took the religious vows that made him a member of the Jesuit Order.

He next entered upon a course of studies normally required of Jesuits preparing for the priesthood. Interspersed with several years of teaching, he studied at Saint Louis University ancient and modern languages, literature and history, natural sciences and mathematics, philosophy, psychology, and theology. He was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1918.

Higher Education

Although as a Jesuit novice he favored the idea of being a missionary, with the passing years the challenge of school teaching came upon him. With a liking for the classical languages, he looked ahead to a career in the classroom teaching Latin and Greek. His superiors, however, noting his natural talent for the sciences, advised him to pursue studies in physics, mathematics, and geology. He graduated with the Master?s degree in 1911.

In 1921 he undertook further studies in these same fields at the University of California in Berkeley. There in 1923 he took his Ph.D. While his major was in physics with minors in geology and mathematics, his dissertation was in seismology. At the special request of the director of the department of geology, he stayed two more years at the University of California as assistant professor in geology to organize graduate studies in geophysics. He was placed in complete charge of the university's earthquake observatories located at Berkely and on Mount Hamilton.

Early Career

In 1925 he left the University of California to establish at Saint Louis University the first department of geophysics in the western hemisphere. Here his initial research centered around seismology as related to earthquakes. Ten years later we find that some of his time was being taken up by the measurement of industrial vibrations and their possible cause of damage to man-made structures.

By 1940 several classes at the university had already been graduated with undergraduate majors in exploration geophysics.

As he expanded the work of the department to include geophysical exploration he also added courses in meteorology. Thus, with the passing years he widened the scope of geophysical education at the University. Besides developing the department of geophysics in its course offerings and in its research projects, he was dean of the university's graduate school from 1927 to 1933 and a member of the board of trustees. In 1944 he established and was the first dean of the Institute of Technology which sponsors curricula in engineering and in the earth sciences. Up to the time of his death he managed to teach one or more classes in spite, of his membership in many University committees and labors in numerous scientific organizations of local and national character. He wrote two books, contributed several chapters to others, and wrote i33 technical papers for various learned journals.

Jesuit Seismological Association

In 1925 he was the prime mover in establishing both the Jesuit Seismological Association and the Eastern Section of the Seismological Society of America. He served these two organizations as president. At the time of his death he was completing the second of the three-year term as president of the American Geophysical Union. In 1948 the William Bowie Medal was bestowed on him by the American Geophysical Union for outstanding research in geophysics.

Honors and Awards

Other honors came to him. He received four honorary degrees, received the Villanova University Mendal Medal, and the Jackling Lecture Award was given him by the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers. His stature as a scientist was recognized in that he was made a fellow of the Geological Society of America, of the American Physical Society, of the American Geographical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Association with SEG

Father Macelwane's association with the Society of Exploration Geophysicists began with his membership in the society in 1936. Because of his deep interest in geophysical exploration he participated actively in the work of the Society. From 1946 to the time he died he was chairman of the Standing Committee on Geophysical Education, and published in 1950 the first Annual Survey of Geophysical Education: In 1955 he was made a member of the society's Special Committee on Research. His contribution to the work of the society was recognized in his being made an honorary life member at the twenty-fifth annual meeting held in October, 1955.

United States Government Appointments

Always willing to share his knowledge and experience, his services were in constant demand. In 1947 he was appointed to the Research and Development Board of the Department of Defense. Some years later he became a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the United States Air Force. In 1952 he was numbered among the members of the Committee on Institutional Research Policy of the American Council on Education. Two years later President Eisenhower's appointment placed him on the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation. As the program of the International Geophysical Year developed he was made chairman of the United States Technical Panel on Seismology and Gravity.

To perform these many labors he could be found in his office in the early morning and late at night. His daily routine included time for his religious duties as a member of the Jesuit community at Saint Louis University where he lived after his return from the University of California in 1925 He had little interest in sport events, playing of cards, or seeing of movies, but local and national news as well as certain sections of the comic strips he followed with daily regularity. A day spent geologizing in the field was particularly delightful to him. Always friendly and a good community man, his colleagues called him "Father Mac." His renown as a scientist did not place a barrier between himself and others. Students felt free to call on him for advice. His ready smile greeted a person with such sincere friendliness that one could not help but be at ease with him.

His remarkable capacity for getting many and different things done was greatly aided by his robust health. His endurance, whether in giving students their first taste of field geology in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, or in working late into the night, or in being prepared for hard work immediately after a prolonged and fatiguing trip amazed his younger confreres. In the fall of 1954, however, a change came over him. He appeared tired and lacked zest. Nevertheless, a checkup in the hospital revealed nothing to cause concern.

A year later he again returned to the hospital. An exploratory operation in December, 1955, indicated acute necrosis of the liver. Intensive medication seemed to improve his condition for awhile but by the beginning of February his decline was very rapid. All admired the unusual patience and good humor with which he bore his physical discomforts and the many weeks of hospital inconveniences. When death came on February 15, 1956 the very numerous telegrams and letters from all parts of the world almost in unison mourned not only the passing of a great scientist but the loss of a noble and much beloved person.


  1. Geophysics, Vol. XXII, No.1, January 1957

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