Albany, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Great Rock Fight

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest scientific society. (AAAS has about 130,000 members and publishes the journal “Science”.) It was founded in Albany 180 years ago!

Ebenezer-Emmons-1It all started on the corner Hudson Ave. and High St. (now covered by the Empire State Plaza) in the home of Ebenezer Emmons. It was there Emmons gathered a bunch of local geologists and from that small group the Association of American Geologists was formed in 1839. In 1848 the group became the AAAS.

Emmons was born in 1799 in Massachusetts and attended Williams College. He came to Albany and studied medicine at Albany Medical College and geology at the Rensselaer Institute in Troy (the precursor to RPI). He was the professor of obstetrics and natural history at the Medical College. (We love a man with diverse interests.) He also taught in Rensselaer.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzBut Emmons first love was geology. So at the same time he was teaching men how to deliver babies he was also the State Geologist for the northern district of the State.

Emmons named the Adirondack Mountains in 1837. (The earliest written use of a name “Rontaks” was in 1729 by a French missionary, based on the unwritten Mohawk word for the Adirondacks.) He was the first man to climb Mount Marcy.

Albany Takes Its Rocks Seriously.. Very Seriously

But Emmons is best known as “father of the Taconic System”. What the the heck is Taconic system? Emmons identified and dated the Taconic mountain range south of Albany. His findings were hugely controversial. Hugely. More than a heated argument.. and it went on for years.

The description of the “Taconic Controversy” by the late Gerald Friedman, professor at RPI, sums it up. It started as an argument with James Hall, Emmons’ assistant (who would later become the leading American paleontologist) that escalated dramatically.

“Emmons and Hall ‘dueled’ over the age of the Taconic rocks, a disagreement that became known as the “Taconic controversy”. Hall said they were younger, whereas Emmons claimed them to be older. This division led to suit and counter suit, favoring Hall. The argument over the Taconic fossils raged for many years. Ultimately Emmons was vindicated. The French scientist, Joachim Barrande, the chief student of European Paleozoic faunas, agreed with Emmons.”

How? Barande demonstrated that the fossilized fauna remains, trilobites, found in the Taconic rocks were consistent with fossilized remains in rocks he found outside Prague (called the Barrandian) Barande proved, in the early 1860s, that of the fossilized remains of fauna that the Taconic rocks were as old as his Barrandian rocks. Case closed. Yay Emmons.

Meanwhile Emmons was banned (BANNED!!!) from the practice of geology in the state of New York and sued Hall for slander and libel. In 1851, after losing the lawsuit, Emmons was hired by the state of North Carolina for the newly created position of State Geologist. He continued in that position until his death in 1863 (before Barande’s conclusions were widely accepted).

Back to the building

In 1901 a plaque was place on the building, “In the house, the home of Dr. Ebenezer Emmons, the first formal efforts were made in 1835 and again in 1839, toward the organization of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, by whose authority this tablet is erected 1901”

31780801543_2bd81a5b1e_bBy 1962 that corner of Hudson Ave and High St. housed Dinty’s Tavern, a favorite neighborhood bar. The building was demolished in the mid-1960s and no one knows what happened to the plaque.

We think this is another person/place/event Albany needs to honor (we’re keeping a list should anyone ever solicit our input). James Hall’s lab and office in Lincoln Park is on the National Historic Register. James Dana, who never lived in Albany, has a street and a park named after him. (Dana was nationally known geologist who basically went “viral” in the 1860s. Dana Natural History Societies, for women only, sprang up all over the country. One was established by the students of Albany’s Female Academy. Dana Park was dedicated in 1901 and the memorial horse trough installed in 1903. (Political clout and money can accomplish all sorts of things.)



Even Barande has a stamp!


PS. Friedman points out that Emmons and Hall are buried next to each other at the Albany Rural Cemetery!

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s