University of Rochester

EVENT: Fairchild's Rochester Preserves Landscape Now Hidden from View

November 19, 2003

Where a fire station and shopping plaza stand on North Goodman Street today, a quarry once revealed the preserved remains of coral reefs and lagoons. They formed in a shallow sea that covered Western New York 420 million years ago. Geologist Herman LeRoy Fairchild arrived with a camera in time to record this geologic data before 20th-century development hid them again.

"As a naturalist, he found himself repeatedly appalled by the price paid by the natural world for progress," says William Chaisson, a geologist and one of the organizers of the current exhibit on Fairchild at the University of Rochester. Fairchild's use of photography, which was becoming immensely popular in the late 1880s, allowed him to record evidence of the distant geologic past and likely helped him gain a following among University of Rochester students and wider public audiences.

Examples of the several thousand photographs taken by Fairchild (1850-1943), his awards and correspondence, and his own meticulously maintained personal notes are collected in "Frozen in Time: Herman LeRoy Fairchild's Photographic Record of Rochester's Geologic Past" in the Rare Books and Special Collections Library on the University's River Campus through Feb. 28, 2004.

"He's the epitome of the late-Victorian scientist who was also socially conscious," says Melissa Mead, the Rare Books librarian who created the exhibit with Chaisson of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and undergraduate Margaret Johnson. Viewers are oriented to the locations depicted by referring to present-day color snapshots and following a glossary of geologic terms. "In Fairchild's photos, there are wonderfully open, undulating landscapes but that's not what you see now," Mead points out.

In addition to Fairchild's significance as a founder (and later president) of the Geological Society of America, the general secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a prolific author, he contributed greatly to the University as a teacher, lecturer, and administrator. His years at Rochester from 1888 to 1920 brought stature to the study of the natural sciences, and paralleled the institution's expansion. His work on the extent of glacial lakes in Western New York is still accepted as accurate today and his published writings number 264.

Fairchild's use of projected images in the classroom was a progressive pedagogic strategy; he is believed to be the first at the University to show slides while he lectured. He used the same lantern slide projector for 32 years, modifying the light source as technology advanced. The device, with brass, cooper, and wooden fittings, is included in the exhibit.

He traveled with the projector and slides to speaking engagements and scientific presentations. An 1891 poster on display promoted his talk at the Town Hall in Hammondsport on the topic of Yellowstone National Park. Admission was 25 cents.

For geological surveys or his own pleasure, Fairchild took photographs in Europe, Jamaica, Panama, and Mexico. Michael Hager, an internationally known photographic printer who reprinted Fairchild's glass plate negatives for the exhibit, noted that the way he framed his images looks similar to the style of Ansel Adamsólike Adams, Fairchild often centered his shots on the geologic feature before him.

The idea for the exhibit surfaced about three years ago when Mead was looking more closely at the Fairchild photographs after an environmental engineer asked to see them. In the introduction to "Frozen in Time," Chaisson describes Fairchild's images "as a sort of family album for the cultural history of the Rochester community." In Rochester and elsewhere, he writes, "the development of electric streetcars and the expansion of the transport system allowed residential neighborhoods for working-class citizens to be built at the edges of the city, obliterating or altering the glacial features that Fairchild had mapped to reconstruct the Ice Age history of Western New York." But if it had not been for some of the construction, the geology may not have been revealed.

The Fairchild exhibit is located in the Rare Books and Special Collections Library on the second floor of Rush Rhees Library. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday; and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. The exhibit is free and open to the public. (For holiday closings, call or check the library Web site at

For more information on the exhibit, contact (585) 275-4477.

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Brief Biographical Sketch of Herman LeRoy Fairchild
1850: Born in Montrose, Pa., April 29
1866: First teaching position at age 16
1874: Graduated from Cornell University
1874-1888: Teacher, lecturer on natural sciences in Pennsylvania and New York
1888: Elected to the chair of geology and natural science, University of Rochester
1888: Founding Member of the Geological Society of America
1889-1901: President of the Rochester Academy of Science
1890-1900: Registrar of the University of Rochester and Secretary of the Faculty
1891-1906: Secretary of the Geological Society of America, supervisor of publications
1894: General Secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; a member of the executive committee from 1996 to 1928
1906-1920: Member of the New York State Geological Survey
1912: President of the Geological Society of America
1938: Awarded the first Rochester Civic Medal by the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences
1943: Died in Strong Memorial Hospital, Nov. 29