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Arthur Philemon Coleman, 1852-1939



Many years ago the American Alpine Club honored itself by electing to honorary membership Professor Coleman. Not only did the Club bring into its fold an explorer and ardent lover of mountains, but a preeminent scientist and man of remarkable personal charm as well. Primarily he was a geologist, but his love of Nature in her wilder aspects was such a ruling passion that many a summer he slipped away from sober science to explore remote parts of the Canadian Rockies. Of course, he had certain objectives, but the sheer enjoyment of the hours spent in camp, in struggles with the rivers, moving through the forests, as well as in the actual climbing of the mountains, had for him an irresistible appeal. One wonders if these were not the happiest hours of his long, successful, and unusually happy life.

He was a painter of beautiful landscapes which he often gave to companions who naturally prized them highly. Several of his paintings may be seen in the Royal Ontario Museum. Students have been known to say that Professor Coleman made a deeper impression on them than anyone else with whom they came in contact. This is not so strange, perhaps, for blended together in one was the scientist of the first water, the artist, picturesque speaker, and simple, friendly, unaffected gentleman of the old school. Sir John Flett, for many years the distinguished director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, once wrote that he considered Coleman not only one of the greatest living geologists, but one comparable also to the great geologists of the past.

Arthur Philemon Coleman was born at Lachute, Quebec, on April 4th, 1852. His father was a Methodist minister and on his mother’s side he was a descendant of John Quincy Adams. For a time he taught school and then entered Victoria University at Cobourg, from which he graduated in 1876, receiving the gold medal established by Queen Victoria for general proficiency. Like many Canadians at that time he went to Germany for graduate study and obtained the degree of doctor of philosophy from Breslau in 1881. Returning to Canada, he was appointed professor of natural history in his alma mater, serving in that capacity until the federation of Victoria with the University of Toronto. In 1891 he was made professor of assay and metallurgy in the School of Practical Science and ten years later became professor of geology and head of the department in the University of Toronto, which position he held until his retirement in 1922 as professor emeritus at the age of seventy. From 1919 until he retired, he served as dean of the faculty of arts, and from 1914 as director of the Royal Ontario Museum. For many years he was a member of the staff of the Ontario Bureau of Mines.

Coleman was one of the few remaining representatives of the older generation of geologists who got their start before the science had differentiated into its present sub-fields. His contributions were very wide in scope, and the accomplished results were of prime importance. His notable investigations of the now-famous Sudbury nickel area, in particular, have called forth high tribute from geologists and mining men alike. The field work was done in the absence of roads and without even trails through much of the wilderness; nor could a canoe be used to advantage as it can in many other parts of Ontario. Nevertheless, his map and the rock series which he worked out have stood the test of time. Today the area produces far more nickel than all the rest of the world combined, and his early deciphering of the geologic history of the region from its complicated rock structures has contributed greatly to our present understanding of the Canadian Shield as a whole.

In quite another line was Coleman’s discovery of the glacial origin of the Cobalt conglomerate, deposited well over a half billion years ago when the earth’s climates were supposed to have been decidedly warm. This led him into a long succcession of critical studies of ancient glacial deposits on all the continents except Antarctica. His very readable Ice Ages, Recent and Ancient, brought out in 1926 after nearly world-wide travels, is the standard publication in this field. With advancing years there was no waning of enthusiasm. Even after passing the four-score mark, he utilized our northern winters for two expeditions to the Andes of Colombia and three to the high mountains of southern Mexico and Central America to round out his studies of Pleistocene glaciation within the tropics; the summers found him back at work in Ontario.

Coleman’s mountaineering was mostly of the pioneering sort in which exploration was more of an objective than solving technical problems of climbing for their own sake. With a few hardy and enthusiastic companions of no great climbing experience he pursued many routes through poorly known portions of the Rockies between 1884 and 1908. One may read with much enjoyment his vivid portrayal of the struggles, failures, and accomplishments of these various expeditions in his book The Canadian Rockies, New and Old Trails which appeared in 1911. The supposedly very lofty Mts. Brown and Hooker were the rainbow at the end of several of these trails till their grandeur became a myth of the past in 1893. In 1907, and again in 1908, the lure was Mt. Robson, upon which apparently no white man had previously set foot. Though his several attempts on the peak were defeated, they stimulated others which before long achieved success.

Probably few people have had a keener appreciation of the beauty of mountains than Professor Coleman. Some years ago at the high bivouac on Orizaba, while the younger and presumably more vigorous members of the party were conscious chiefly of their fatigue and the penetrating chill, Coleman was observed feverishly at work with his paints trying to preserve the sunset tints fast fading from the snowy cone. A water-color sketch of his is probably the earliest picture which we have of Mt. Waddington.

The geological profession has conferred its highest honors on Doctor Coleman. He held honorary membership in the English and American Alpine Clubs. One of the original members of the Alpine Club of Canada, he was vice-president in 1906–8 and was its second president, 1908–14. At eighty-six the splendid old gentleman was preparing for a winter trip to British Guiana and planning a summer visit to Mt. Coleman in the Canadian Rockies. But these unfortunately were not to be, for he was taken ill at his desk and, after three weeks, died on February 26th, 1939.

R. T. C.