American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

With a Camera in My Hands: William O. Field, Pioneer Glaciologist

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  • Publication Year: 2004

With a Camera in My Hands: William O. Field, Pioneer Glaciologist. William O. Field, as told to Suzanne Brown. Anchorage: University of Alaska Press, 2004. 350 black and white photos, 46 maps, including LINEWORK AND SHADED-RELIEF LANDFORMS. 208 PAGES. HARDCOVER, $59.95; paperback, $29.95.

This is the story of William Osgood Field, whose work in Alaska and Canada from the 1920s into the 1950s did much to advance understanding of glacial phenomena and their relationship to global climate trends. Field has been called a founding “father of American glaciology,” and this book, using diaries, tape recordings, and photographs, reveals the man behind the epithet. With a Camera in My Hands will reward anyone interested in the glacial systems of these regions, or in the career of the distinguished explorer, scientist, and AAC member.

The books title turns out to be a key to one of Field’s significant contributions. Keeping a camera on hand at all times, he made a practice of recording the condition of glaciers wherever he went. By returning at intervals to a site and occupying the exact location from which an earlier photo had been taken, he was able to update the photographic record, demonstrating patterns of movement, shape, and size from summer to summer, and eventually decade to decade. His collection of historic glacier photos by earlier explorers allowed him to extend the usefulness of the technique, in some cases providing a 100-year photographic record of glacial changes. Several of these time-lapse sequences are reproduced in the book.

Field’s familiarity with glaciers and wilderness began at an early age. In the summer of 1920, when he was 16, he first visited the Canadian Rockies, returning again in 1921 and 1922. He climbed in the Alps in 1923, was elected to membership in the American Alpine Club in 1924, and was back in the Canadian Rockies that summer for a first ascent of South Twin. Alaska called him in 1925 and again in 1926, when he made the first of his many scientific trips. During his final year of college he served as president of the Harvard Mountaineering Club, and earned a degree in geology in 1926.

Field’s initial glacial studies were in the Glacier Bay and Prince William Sound areas, and he made numerous visits to the Muir, Rendu, Grand Pacific, and Johns Hopkins glaciers in Glacier Bay, the Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound, and also to the glaciers in College and Harriman Fiord. Though eventually his interests were to take him as far afield as Greenland, the Caucusus and Antarctica, his work among the coastal glaciers of Alaska was to be the dominant

theme in his long and active career.

In 1940 he became a full-time research associate with the American Geographic Society in New York. Back in Alaska in the summer of 1941, Field led a survey of the glaciers in Glacier Bay. With him was Maynard Miller, then a Harvard geology student (and new AAC member). In 1946 the two initiated the idea of studying the health of Alaska glaciers, and in 1948 they founded the Juneau Icefield Research Project (JIRP), establishing several camps along the periphery of the icefield. Over the next decade more camps were established and scientific personnel added for glacial research and related meteorological, geological, and botanical studies. (Scanning AAJs from the late forties and early fifties will reveal several articles penned by Miller and others about the project.) When JIRP evolved into a college-credit summer course, Field handed the reins to Miller and resumed his surveys of glaciers in other coastal areas of Alaska and British Columbia, and in the Canadian Rockies.

In 1957 Field participated in International Geophysical Year activities, becoming chairman of the Panel for Glaciology and also head of the new IGY World Data Center for Glaciology in North America, for which he organized its repository of glacier information. His last major project was authoring Mountain Glaciers of the Northern Hemisphere, in 1975.

There is a great deal more to tell about the man and his accomplishments. But it is much better done in his own words and photographs. We can be thankful that Suzanne Brown took it upon herself to produce an audio history of Bill Field’s career, work with him on his extensive collection of photos and notes, and transform these valuable records into a living story. Likewise, that the University of Alaska Press has given it such an attractive tangible form. His scientific and historical activities are in good hands at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies at Banff. William Osgood Field, American glaciologist and one of the AAC’s great members, will not be forgotten.

Dee Molenaar

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