Geologist Sees Future In Terms Of Past
THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL Friday, February 6, 1970
by Jean Otto
When Katherine Greacen Nelson came to Milwaukee in 1938, she met Thomas A. Greene -- not in person, but through his work.
"I felt I could see him on long winter evenings with his work," she said. "The care with which he wrote labels, the quantity..."
"His work" was collecting almost 90,000 geological specimens. The collection --one of the best in the country-- will be opened to the public at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Greene Memorial Museum at 7 p.m. Friday.
Mrs. Nelson, a professor in the department of geological sciences, has been busy these last weeks, checking to be sure each specimen is properly labeled and having the museum itself cleaned and polished for public inspection.
Even after 32 years of acquaintance with the collection, Mrs. Nelson is till impressed with its completeness and the thorough way it was gathered and cataloged.
Came Here in 1848
The Greene family, she said, came to Milwaukee in 1848, and Greene became interested in rocks as a boy. Later he studied geology at Friend's School in Providence, R.I. "He bought what was the bible of geologists, Dana's System of Mineralogy, a thick book with descriptions of all the minerals."
That book is part of the display at the museum. It's yellowed pages show evidence of long and thorough use. "He pored over it to see which ones he had. His aim was to have one of each described in the book," Mrs. Nelson said.
Greene's father had wanted him to become a doctor, Mrs. Nelson said, but he was much more interested in botany, biology and chemistry. He apprenticed to a pharmacist and later he and a physician formed a wholesale drug firm. "Many of his fossil specimens were kept in pill jars," Mrs. Nelson said.
Traveled and Collected
Wherever he traveled, Greene looked for additions to his collection, she said. A number of quarries were active in Milwaukee, and he became interested in fossils found there. Workmen saved the best specimens for him. Part of the collection is a lengthy correspondence Greene carried on with other collectors in Illinois and Indiana.
Greene died in 1894, and the collection was given to Milwaukee-Downer College in 1911, on the condition that geology be taught there.
After getting her Ph.D. in geology from Rutgers University, Mrs. Nelson came to Downer to teach geology and geography. "One person was both departments," she said with a smile. She was also curator of the Greene collection.
Mrs. Nelson moved over to UWM a semester before Downer merged with Lawrence University in Appleton and UWM bought the Greene collection for $20,000. In 1961, she remembered, UWM started a geology department and she was the only one in it. Another person was added the following year and two more the next. "We expect there'll be 11 on the faculty next year," she said.
She called geology "a science that has become increasingly important and more in the public eye." Oil and mining firms recruit here, and there's never an oversupply of students. In her classes this year, she said, she has discussed problems of pollution and environment. "I hope I can get people to see the earth itself as essential, and that we must find ways to keep from ruining it.
"In fossil groups you see explosive evolution -- the sudden mass dying of organisms. We don't understand why they became extinct, but as we see some things happening now we understand better. I hope we can learn enough before we become extinct."
Mrs. Nelson pointed out some of the fossils in the collection which were animals here from 320 to 350 million years ago. "Wisconsin was all under water then, with coral reefs scattered here and there. Quarries were the reef areas where animals congregated, where there was plenty of food.
"When you think of the tremendous numbers of things that have lived here before us, of so much rock still uncovered, of the enormous periods of time in these eras....We can't even imagine...
"Those that adapted survived," she said. "Those that specialized were doomed when their environment changed. Man is different in that if he doesn't want to adapt, he changes his environment. The big problem is if he is smart enough to make it come out right, farsighted enough not to race toward the wrong goal, and to choose long rather than short term goals."
Hope in Change
Mrs. Nelson said there's a "lot you can glean from fossils that you can apply to man -- and what may happen to man. The bright hope is that man will change things before it's too late. I hope it's not too late now, but I can't be optimistic enough to think things will go along this way forever. I give us a few thousand years, anyway."
Geology is a good field for a young woman, Mrs. Nelson said. "I don't think there's discrimination, although you may have to work a little harder to break in. Once you do, things are equal with men."
She loves teaching, she said, and travel, which usually brings her work into play also. She and her husband, Frank H., an attorney, recently went to Egypt, Greece and Rome and she has taken several trips sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Geological Society of America.
The couple have become eager fans of the Milwaukee Bucks this season, with her nephew, Bob Greacen of Merchantville, N.J., on the team.
The Nelsons live at 2569 N. Wahl Ave. "You can recognize our house," Mrs. Nelson said. "We have rocks all around the house--and inside."