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Douglass Houghton
Oil on board by Alva Bradish (1850)

Douglass Houghton (September 21, 1809 – October 13, 1845) was an American geologist and physician, primarily known for his exploration of the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan.

Contents

Early Life and Education

Houghton was born in Troy, New York, the son of Jacob Houghton, a lawyer and later a county judge, and Mary Lydia Douglass. Raised in a closely-knit, cultured home in Fredonia, New York, Douglass was a small person with a nervous, active temperament inclined toward the practical and scientific. He exhibited early his lifelong interest in the natural world, and in spite of a slight speech impediment and facial scarring from a youthful experiment with gunpowder he was at ease with all levels of society.

In 1829 Houghton entered the Rensselaer School at Troy, New York where, under the direction of Amos Eaton scientific training was emphasized, particularly in geology. That same year he received both the bachelor's degree and a teaching appointment in chemistry and natural history there. He also studied medicine with a doctor friend of his family and was licensed to practice in 1831.

Career

His association with the Michigan Territory began the previous year, when the city fathers of Detroit took their search for a public lecturer on science to Eaton, who strongly recommended the youthful Houghton. He was enthusiastically received in Detroit and rapidly became one of its best-known citizens, with the young men of his acquaintance soon styling themselves “the Houghton boys.”

Houghton quickly was selected by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft to act as physician-naturalist on expeditions through Lake Superior and the upper Mississippi valley in 1831 and 1832. On these trips Houghton did extensive botanical collecting, investigated the Lake Superior copper deposits of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and provided medical services to the Indian tribes they encountered.

In 1833 he married his childhood friend Harriet Stevens, with whom he had two daughters. The establishment of a flourishing medical practice in Detroit earned him the affectionate designation, "the little doctor, our Dr. Houghton," but by 1836 he had largely set aside the medical profession to concentrate on real estate speculation. His scientific interests remained strong, however, and as Michigan achieved statehood in 1837 he returned again to public life and his love of the natural world.

One of the first acts of the new Michigan state government was to organize a state geological survey, following a pattern already established in other states. Houghton's appointment as the first state geologist was unanimously hailed, and he occupied that position for the remainder of his life.

In 1839 he was also named the first professor of geology, mineralogy, and chemistry at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but he continued to reside in Detroit. He and his survey assistants spent many weeks in the field each season, mapping and evaluating Michigan's natural resources, and his personal influence with state legislators kept the project moving in the face of many financial difficulties. His fourth annual report, based on field work done in 1840, appeared February 1, 1841. It helped trigger the first great mining boom of American history, and earned him the title of "father of copper mining in the United States."

He was a founding member and treasurer of the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists (the predecessor of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and served on several of its committees. A lifelong Episcopalian and staunch Democrat, he was elected to a term as mayor of Detroit in 1842, apparently against his wishes, but his competent administration raised the possibility of higher political office, perhaps governor.

Death

In 1845, with the state survey moribund because of the lack of funds, Houghton organized a combined linear and geological survey of the Lake Superior region that was funded by the federal government, but while working on that survey he and a companion drowned in Lake Superior near Eagle River, Michigan when their small boat swamped in a storm. His demise sent waves of shock through Michigan and the entire country, but his reluctance to yield to the expressed concerns of his voyageurs about the worsening weather conditions may have contributed to the disaster. His remains were discovered on the shoreline the next spring 1846 and returned to Detroit, where they were buried in Elmwood Cemetery. Neither of the surveys on which he was working at the time was ever completed.

Legacy

Following his death, an enduring tradition arose claiming that many of Houghton's geological insights had been notably in advance of those of his contemporaries. In particular, it has been repeatedly asserted over the years that Houghton was the first geologist to recognize that the unique native copper deposits of the Keweenaw Peninsula on Lake Superior could be profitably mined, contrary to what all previous mining experience would have suggested. While this claim has been disputed by some, there is no question that Houghton's 1841 report on the copper deposits in the Keweenaw—and Houghton's statements that the copper was of a commercially exploitable nature—was the first such report made by someone who spoke with authority.

Houghton's place in American history is somewhat problematic. Although he was the state geologist of Michigan for eight years, for reasons not entirely clear he never wrote the long-anticipated final report that had been the goal of the survey from its inception and which could have fully established his scientific reputation. His multiple abilities were ideally suited to the needs of the society of his day, but he was not always successful in reconciling the conflicting demands of the various roles he filled. As a scientist his potential seems to have been considerable, but his death prevented that potential from being fully realized.

The city of Houghton, Houghton County, and two Houghton Lakes are Michigan features named in his honor, as is Douglass Houghton Hall, a residence hall at Michigan Technological University. A plaque commemorating Houghton is at the entrance to the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Michigan. He and three other professors are also memorialized by a monument near the University of Michigan's Graduate Library that features a broken pillar symbolizing lives cut short. In 2006 the University created the Douglass Houghton Scholars Program, designed to encourage students interested in careers in science.

References

Laudatory biographies are:

  • Alvah Bradish, Memoir of Douglass Houghton, First State Geologist of Michigan (1889).
  • Edsel K. Rintala, Douglass Houghton, Michigan's Pioneer Geologist (1954).

A brief introduction to Houghton and the Lake Superior copper deposits can be found in:

  • Ira B. Joralemon, Copper: The Encompassing Story of Mankind's First Metal (1973).

A revisionary analysis of Houghton's geological work is found in:

  • David J. Krause, The Making of a Mining District: Keweenaw Native Copper 1500-1870 (1992).

Further reading

External links

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