Francis Luther Whitney (1878-1962)

Francis Luther WhitneyWhitney died January 25, 1962, at the age of 83. Dr. Whitney retired from active teaching in 1953 to become Professor Emeritus of Geology after 44 years of teaching at the University of Texas.

Whitney was born at Enfield Center, New York, September 2, 1878. His elementary education was completed in New York and he graduated from Elmira Academy before the age of 15. Hard times came upon the family after a bank theft, and young Francis Whitney spent six years in the tool makers trade, becoming foreman in one factory by the age of 21.

Before the age of 12 he became a fossil collector and established an interest that never died. He served as a guide, while still a youngster, to Cornell University geology classes when they were collecting fossils in the Elmira, New York, area.

At Cornell Francis Whitney started his long teaching career, for after his first year he handled all the paleontology classes while continuing work for his own degree. Francis Whitney graduated from Cornell in 1901, and in the same year married Grace Pellet. He immediately went to work for the Gurly Instrument Company repairing and making surveying instruments. However, he preferred the out-of-doors to a lifelong position indoors, and when the opportunity arrived, he chose teaching as a profession. He taught for one year (1907) at Buchtel College in Akron, Ohio, and a year (1908) at Hastings, Nebraska. In 1909 he came to UT and rose through the ranks to Professor.

In his early years Professor Whitney’s outstanding accomplishments at UT were of two facets, 1) he shared in and sometimes alternated in teaching the geology field courses started by Dr. Hal P. Bybee, and 2) he inaugurated paleontological studies at UT, neglected since the short tenure (one year) of R. T. Hill as Professor of Geology in 1887-88. At this time Professor Whitney started one of the earliest courses in micropaleontology in the world. The early days of micropaleontology in the oil industry were dominated by Whitney’s students. Much of the paleontology of Texas published during the 1920’s was published by Whitney’s students.

Dr. Whitney learned the machinist trade as a youngster, and during World War I he organized and headed the automotive Camp Mabry shop, associated with the military training camps at Austin, and served at least in an advisory capacity to similar training shops throughout Texas. His machinist skill was an asset throughout his life for various projects, such as cutting a ring gear to repair a station wagon in Trans-Pecos Texas and building his own photographic and dark room equipment. He also manufactured machined models for demonstrating problems in structural geology, developing a method of copper plating wax models so that they would not collapse in excessive summer heat, made his own photographic chemicals and emulsified papers during World War II when they were unobtainable through normal channels as well as other instruments. In his laboratory at his home on Wooldridge Drive in Austin he created a mechanical computer which he designed on the principle of an abacus and built of spare typewriter, adding machine, speedometer, and other miscellaneous parts. Dr. Whitney’s laboratory, in addition to extensive fossil collections, contained a woodworking lathe, a metal working lathe and various other machinist paraphernalia.

Dr. Whitney was the third Chairman of the Geology Department, serving in that capacity for nine years. During this period the Geology Department started its great pre-World War II growth. When a doctoral program was inaugurated by the Department of Geology at UT, the first PhD students were supervised by Whitney. He also supervised 59 Master’s students.

Professor Whitney’s list of publications is not large; neither are those of his colleagues during the middle-30-years of the Geology Department at UT. But for some, success may be measured in other ways. Whitney’s students have published more than their share of the geology of the Gulf Coast, and the measure of Professor Whitney’s contribution to UT, to the State of Texas, and to the profession of geology, is the tremendous contribution that his students have made to the Texas economy through geology; to science through publication and research; and to culture through the inspiration they have shared with and given to others.