American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Harry Fielding Reid, 1859-1944

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1945



When an ardent mountaineer becomes a professional geologist whose chosen fields of research include the mechanics of mountain building and the operation of glaciers, the combination is a happy one. Sport and study then go hand in hand. Fortunate in this respect was Harry Fielding Reid1 who was both an original member of the American Alpine Club and a distinguished interpreter of earth dynamics.

Born in Baltimore on May 18, 1859, he took his A.B. and Ph.D. degrees at Johns Hopkins University, studying also in Germany and England. After teaching first mathematics and then physics at the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland (1886-1894), he returned to his Alma Mater where for many years he served as professor of geological physics and later of dynamical geology and geography, until his retirement at the age of 70 in 1929.

Early in his career Dr. Reid devoted much time to the investigation of glaciers which took him repeatedly to the Alps, our western mountains, and Alaska. Many papers were published on the movements and variations of glaciers. Taking up the debated question of glacier banding, he traced the original stratification of the neve down into the ice tongues of the Forno and Unteraar Glaciers and in consequence supported the view that the blue bands are a primary structure throughout. With increasing understanding, however, many geologic features are proving to be more and more composite in origin, and it has now become certain that blue bands also develop secondarily in the moving ice. The problem of differentiating the primary and secondary glacier structures is still with us.

When San Francisco was damaged by the 1906 earthquake and resulting fire, Dr. Reid was selected as a leading member of the California State Earthquake Commission to make a thorough study of the earthquake problem. Their elaborate report (1910) was a work of great value. That the earthquake was due to a sudden slip of 20 ft. along the San Andreas fault had been determined by the Berkeley and Stanford geologists within a few hours after the disaster, but it took Reid’s incisive study to demonstrate that elastic rebound was the mechanism of the faulting and the immediate cause of the shock.

Although Reid had been quite active in earthquake research before undertaking the California investigation, the advances made in this outstanding contribution opened up new vistas and thereafter he inclined increasingly toward the fields of seismology and the related tectonics. Due to him, in part, is the dictum that the folding of rock strata is only an early step in the formation of mountains which receive their elevation later by regional uplifts and their sculptured form by erosion. While this is perhaps an over-simplified generalization, it undoubtedly embodies a significant principle in earth deformation which has not yet been satisfactorily explained.

In 1915 Dr. Reid was a member of the committee appointed by the National Academy of Science at the request of President Wilson to devise means for controlling the slides which impeded the completion of the Panama Canal. Later the President sent him abroad to report on the war effort of British Science in World War I. His membership in many learned societies in this country and abroad indicates the breadth of his interests and the recognition which he received.

On a climb Reid was a natural leader, for his sound judgment and all-round skill quickly came into play in the operation of a party. The peaks and snowfields seemed to banish his usual reserve, leaving him an ideal mountaineering companion. Most of his climbing companions are now gone, but those who remain will be pleased to realize that his long, useful life did not come to its close till after his 85th birthday, on June 18th, 1944.

R. T. C.

1Portrait, courtesy of Appalachia.

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