William Osgood Field, 1904-1994

Publication Year: 1995.



It was 1941 when I first met Bill Field, a geology graduate of Harvard’s class of 1926. He had already spent some fifteen years pursuing his consuming interests of photographing, recording and cataloguing coastal glacier termini in Alaska. He invited me, then a geology undergraduate at Harvard, to join him and his team as a field assistant on a summer of mapping the rapidly disappearing tidal glaciers in Glacier Bay.

I marveled during those weeks of vigorous surveying how meticulously and precisely Bill triangulated, photographed, observed and recorded ice-front details ... as he would continue to do over periodic return visits to Alaska during his long and distinguished career. During that summer so long ago, I learned of his comfortable humor and his quiet, yet persistent enthusiasm for the exploration he planned and carried out so well. He took much joy in new discoveries, such as our finding John Muir’s 1874 cabin in the heavy alder thickets covering the shore of Muir Inlet.

After serving as an officer in the Signal Corps in World War II, Bill returned to New York and the American Geographical Society (AGS), where in 1946 he established the Department of Exploration and Field Research, which he was to head until his retirement in 1969. That same year, I found my way to a desk as a research associate during my graduate school days at Columbia University. He gave me encouragement in my vision of a long-range interdisciplinary program on the Juneau Icefield, Alaska to investigate the total system of these glaciers, including their high-source areas, so that we could better understand their sometimes perplexing terminal behavior and relationship to global climate trends. In 1948, together we promoted support for the Juneau Icefield Research Project.

Bill was my best man at Joan’s and my wedding in 1951. What she had not counted on was that Bill and I would spend several days of what was to have been our honeymoon traveling to secure final funding for another glaciological project we were developing in Greenland.

Bill was well published, including many articles in the Geographical Review and key glacier maps issued by the AGS. Perhaps his major accomplishment was a three-volume work, Mountain Glaciers of the Northern Hemisphere, published in 1975 by the Army Corps of Engineers’ CRREL laboratory. Bill was probably best known as a behind-the-scenes adviser, as well as for his services on committees, panels and commissions. Early on, he played a very important part in the planning of the International Geophysical Year, serving as a reporter on glaciology on the U.S. National Committee for the IGY and later Chairman of its Technical Panel on Glaciology. Bill also served as a consultant to the IGY Antarctic Committee and was Vice President of the Commission of Snow and Ice for the International Union of Geology and Geophysics. He organized and directed the World Data Center A for Glaciology during its initial years.

He was elected an Honorary Member of the American Alpine Club in 1976. A Fellow of the Explorers Club, the Geological Society of America and the American Geographical Society, he was a member of the governing committee of the International Glaciological Society and active in the Arctic Institute of North America. Bill served as a member of the Council of the American Alpine Club from 1933 to 1938 and from 1948 to 1949 and was Eastern Vice President from 1950 to 1952. Many organizations honored him. He received the Seligman Crystal of the Glaciological Society, the Busk Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, the Daly Medal of the American Geographical Society and the Explorers Medal of the Explorers Club. Bill was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

“If scholarly disciplines can have founding fathers,” wrote Dr. Melvin G. Marcus, “surely Bill Field was one of those who sired the field of Glaciology.” Bill was a modest and private man, who revelled in nature, in travel, in adventure . . . and yes, in a double manhattan before dinner, international cuisine, and in the latest in political news.

Bill’s first wife, Alice Witherow, died in 1960. In 1963, he married Mary Losey Mapes, who survives him along with his daughter Diana Sloane Field, his son John Osgood Field and stepsons Anthony and Peter Mapes.

At his memorial service in Trinity Church, Lennox, Massachusetts the following statement appeared in the program: “Bill was a remarkable man. To his family, he was a gentle patriarch, loving, nurturing and ever supportive. To others, he was unfailingly courteous and kind. He had a deep respect for nature, and he rejoiced in the earth’s variety and beauty. An early conservationist, he did much, personally and professionally, to promote the preservation and wise use of natural resources . . . Bill Field was among the world’s foremost glaciologists of our time. His work ranged from the Canadian Rockies, Alps and Caucasus to Greenland and Antarctica. But his most enduring commitment was to south and southeastern Alaska, especially Prince William Sound and Glacier Bay. He first went to Alaska in 1925 and visited Glacier Bay the following year, where he last did his reknowned measurements in 1987, a span of 61 years. In all, he made 25 scientific trips to Alaska, and he left a rich record of glacier movements that is both unique and comprehensive.”

To honor him, the name Field Glacier has been proposed to the Board of Geographic Names for the main westward-flowing trunk glacier from the central coastal flank of the Juneau Icefield. This is the type of spectacular physiographic feature which attracted his continuing curiosity and held his deep respect. It is a fitting memorial to a man who will long be remembered for his years of enthusiastic support and leadership in the scientific study of mountains and glaciers and for his professional geoscience contributions and gracious life.

Maynard M. Miller