John Beaver Mertie, Jr.

(1888 - 1980)

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photo of John Mertie

John Beaver Mertie, Jr., August 29, 1915.
Photo from "Thirty Summers and a Winter".

John Mertie was a big man physically and scientifically, a giant of Alaskan geology and mining form 1911 until his death in 1980. He was one of the stalwarts of the heroic age of Alaskan geology before WWW II when the work was extremely demanding physically as well as requiring a high degree of professional competence and dedication. John Mertie produced an impressive body of work, presented in more than 70 publications that covered much of Alaska and are widely respected and frequently referenced to this day. He is probably best know for his work in the Yukon-Tanana region but there are few areas of Alaska that he did not map in or visit the mining camps. He was widely respected throughout Alaska not only for his scientific prowess, but also for a rare rapport with Alaskan miners, woodsmen, settlers, and natives. A visit from Mr. Mertie was always welcome anywhere during his active years in Alaska be it town, village, roadhouse, or mining camp. His professional career in geology, much of it in Alaska, extended to his death in 1980 at age 92. He continued to do science to the end; his first publication on Alaska geology was dated 1911, his last 1976. He served the U. S. Geological Survey, the nation and Alaska exceptionally well for more than 70 years and we still owe much of what we know about the geology and mineral resources of Alaska to John Mertie.

John Beaver Mertie Jr. was born on January 22, 1888, in Baltimore, Maryland to John and Margaret E. Mertie, originally Pennsylvanians of Dutch-Irish and Irish ancestry. As John was about to enter high school, his father who passed on his great strength to John, accepted a position as a shop foreman with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad in Raton, New Mexico. John stayed in Baltimore to finish his high school education. However, he spent his summers in Raton where at age sixteen, he too began working for the A. T. & S. F., initially as a machinist's helper at $1.95 per day. In subsequent summers, John advanced to skilled lathe operator and machinist. Here John also learned to drive a steam locomotive (but it was forty years before he mastered the automobile). Mertie entered John Hopkins University in the fall of 1905 and largely funded his undergraduate education working for the railroad in the summers. He intended to study chemistry and in fact took all the undergraduate classes in chemistry. In his senior year, Dr. Charles Swartz induced Mertie to change his major to geology. John earned a B.A. degree in 1908 from John Hopkins University, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and received a Ph.D. degree in geology from the same school in 1911 at the age of 23.

From 1908 to 1910, Mertie was employed during the summer by the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado and New Mexico, and did his graduate thesis on the lava of the Raton area. Upon his graduation in 1911, he obtained an introduction to Alfred Hulse Brooks, and at his request began his U.S.G.S. career in Alaska as a petrographer, then a rare skill in the organization.

John began his field work as an assistant to L.M. Prindle in the Yukon Tanana region, an area where John spent much of his subsequent professional north country career. Their work that summer was by foot and horseback and because of the short season, John got a good introduction to Alaskan fieldwork. They moved camp 73 times in the next 75 days. He spent a season with Fred Moffit in the Copper River region and then G. C. Martin in the Matanuska River region before starting his own projects. For the next 39 years, he spent most of his summers in Alaska literally covering the Territory on foot, horse, dogsled and canoe from Ketchikan to Barrow and from the Canadian border to Cape Prince of Wales Island as attested by the many now classic publications that resulted from his field work. Particularly notable was his co-leadership of the expedition to the Brooks Range and North Slope in 1924. Begun in February in Washington, the party traveled by steamship, train, and mail sled to Tanana, then used dog sleds to freight four canoes and tons of food and equipment through the Brooks Range in the winter. After Spring breakup, the worked down the Colville River and its tributaries by canoe and on foot to Barrow where they arrived in late August making topographic and geologic maps from the Yukon River north to the Arctic coast as they went. Field work was often arduous then; for instance, in the summer of 1933, when the USGS budget was cut drastically, Mertie backpacked alone from Ruby to Flat, some 400 miles in all, visiting the many mining camps along the way. In addition, of course, Mertie soon published the results in another of his classic USGS Bulletins. His work expanded to the Goodnews Bay area in 1937 where he developed an enduring interest in the platinum deposits there. Time and again, however, he returned to the Yukon-Tanana region and it is particularly fitting that his name now endures in the Mertie Mountains, east of Eagle where he did so much of his work.

Mertie was also notable for his exceptional wide interests and skills beyond geology. He was an excellent surveyor, photographer, and as were many early USGS geologists, a much better than amateur botanist. He always carried a plant press in the field and discovered a number of arctic plants, some of which were named for him. He was also skilled with the microscope and was an excellent mineralogist. His ability as a photographer is attested by the thousands of photographs in the USGS archives that he took during his fieldwork. But his photography was more than a hobby. During World War I, he and Fred Moffit pioneered in military aerial photography. Moffit developed one of the earliest American instruments to rectify multi-lens aerial photographs for the Army and Mertie did the experimental flying, established the darkrooms, and instructed several classes of officers in the techniques. John was an accomplished mathematician; he not only published several papers on the mathematics of geology, he often entertained himself during weather days in the field while traveling doing mathematical calculations.

In 1942, Mertie retired from active field work in Alaska but continued as a full-time Survey employee for another 16 years in the lower 48 states until his mandatory retirement in 1958. That work began in the west but he soon was called to study the monazite and rare earth elements of the Appalachian Mountains. After his official retirement, he was called back on a part-time basis and he continued his mineralogical and Alaskan work almost to his death at age 92. His next to the last publication, his 68th, was a definitive Professional Paper on the platinum deposits of the Goodnews Bay area that he revisited several times in the the late 1960's. His last paper, one on the monazite deposits of the Appalachians, was published in 1979, at age 91, 67 years after his first publication for the USGS.

Soon after receiving his doctorate, John married Mary Brice Garrish of Baltimore, a childhood sweetheart. Mary was not able to visit Alaska until 1939 but she was a dedicated field assistant during his many long field trips in the Appalachians during his later years. After Mary's death in 1965, John married Evelyn Cisney, a colleague in the USGS. In addition to her professional accomplishments, Evelyn worked with John to prepare his reminiscences of his Alaska work. The result is Thirty Summers and a Winter, a memorial that is not only an enchanting look at the Alaska career of John Mertie, it is a unique description of how Alaskan geology was done before World War II.

By Donald G. Grybeck, 2000


Mertie, Evelyn, 1982, Thirty Summers and a Winter, University of Alaska Mineral Industry Research Laboratory, School of Mineral Industry, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska, 187 pages.

Overstreet, W.C., and Chapman, R.M., 1980, Memorial to John Beaver Mertie 1888-1980: Geological Society of American Special Publication Series, Boulder, Colorado, 6 pages.

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