Memorial To Katherine Greacen Nelson (1913-1982)

by Rachel K. and Richard A. Paull



Dr. Katherine G. Nelson, a distinguished geologic educator and a Professor in the Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at the time of her death, died on December 29, 1982, after a short but valiant fight against cancer.

Katherine Greacen was born in Sierra Madre, California on December 9, 1913 into a military family. Her life as an Army brat stabilized when her father was posted to Rutgers University to direct the R.O.T.C. program. Education was important to the Greacen family and Katherine received her A.B. degree from Vassar College in 1934.

After receiving the first Ph.D. in geology from Rutgers University in 1938, Katherine began her distinguished career of service at Milwaukee Downer College. After World War II duty in the oil fields of Texas with Shell Oil and Hunt Oil, she returned to Milwaukee and made educational contributions at Milwaukee Downer Seminary, the Y.W.C.A., and Wisconsin State College before joining The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee faculty in 1956.

Although Katherine's professional accomplishments include numerous scholarly papers, she is best known for her devotion to teaching others about the earth. Most university professors restrict their teaching to college-level courses and the supervision of graduate students, but not Katherine. She was always non-selective in her educational endeavors, and was equally available to, and confortable with, a bus load of school children visiting the Greene Museum or congressman contemplating the potential for the Ice Age Scientific Reserve in Wisconsin. She never undertook any assignment with thought of personal reward or recognition. All she ever cared about was helping an individual, a group, or an organization. Selfless people such as this are rare in our society.

In addition to being the first chairperson of the Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences at UWM, Katherine found time to serve her University on dozens of committees. She was a Fellow of the Geological Society of America; and a member of the Paleontological Society, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and the American Association of Stratigraphical Palynologists.

Katherine held offices in a score of service-oriented organizations. For special contributions toward the establishment of a Sigma Xi Chapter at UWM, she was elected President of the fledgling club. In recognition of assistance to the Milwaukee Public Museum, she was appointed an Honorary Curator. For long-term service to the Wisconsin Geological Society, including a term as President, she was appointed an Honorary Member. She worked for many years in a variety of capacities for the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, and served as the first woman President in 1952-53. She continued on the Governing Board of the Academy until her death.

She also served as President of Phi Kappa Phi, and was a nominee for President of the Earth Science Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the time of her death. The Midwest Federation of Mineralogical and Geological Societies honored Katherine as Educator of the Year in 1982. She was an active contributor to programs of the National Association of Geology Teachers, and served as President of the Central Section. In 1978, this organization selected her as the first woman recipient of the prestigious Neil Miner Award for distinguished contributions to earth science education.

One could continue listing her activities in other organizations and on boards, or describe her many earth science-oriented educational endeavors for a variety of organizations. This could be followed by a listing of published scientific articles and her numerous public lectures. However, this would leave unlisted hundreds of informal presentations made to classes and clubs in Milwaukee area schools. Whenever, a call came into her department for a display, a career talk, a demonstration, or a lecture, almost everyone else was too busy except Katherine. She was always the willing volunteer for public service of all kinds. Her vast knowledge about Wisconsin geology made her the preferred geological contact for reporters from area newspapers and TV stations, and she freely assisted them all without concern for the time it took. Because of all her involvements, she was The Geologist to citizens of southeastern Wisconsin.

There is much more one could record about Katherine the doer, but what about Katherine the person? She was tranquil and energetic with a kind word and helping hand to all; and always with a beautiful smile. To her, the earth was a remarkable place to be understood, appreciated and enjoyed. She labored tirelessly for this belief while imparting warmth, enthusiasm and joy to everyone she came in contact with. To thousands, she was the perfect model of what a college professor should be.

On January 15, 1983, colleagues in her department hosted a paleontological symposium to honor her life, featuring contributions by her former students. These papers were subsequently published in a special memorial volume of the Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, which was sponsored by contributions from former students and professional associates. A scholarship honoring Katherine was also established by her department and contributions are welcomed.

Katherine Greacen Nelson, geologist and educator, is survived by her husband, Attorney Frank H. Nelson, a brother Robert A. Greacen, and thousands of loving friends and former students scattered throughout the world. She enriched the lives of all who knew her.


  • 1941 The Stratigraphy, fauna and correlation of Vincentown Formation: New Jersey Department of Conservative, Geological Series Bulletin 52, 83 p, map.
  • 1944 (and Ball, J.R.) Studies of Silurian fossils in the Thomas A. Greene Collection at Milwaukee-Downer College: Transactions of Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, v.36, p.415-419.
  • 1946 (with Ball, J.R.) Catalog of the Egan Collection of Silurian invertebrate fossils: Chicago Academy of Science Special Publication, No.7, 55 p.
  • 1954 A geologists point of view on appreciation of our surroundings: Transactions of Wisconsin Academy Sciences, Arts, and Letters, v.43, p.117-123.
  • 1963 (and Roberts, J.) The Milwaukee Formation along Lake Michigan's shore: Transactions of Wisconsin Academy Sciences, Arts, and Letters, v.52, p.77-81.
  • 1970 (and Lasca, N.P.) Milwaukee: its Geologic setting: Geotimes, v. 17, no. 8, p. 12-15.
  • 1976 Environment for discovery - the Owen survey of Wisconsin: Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy Sciences, Arts, and Letters, v. 64, p. 173-179.