James B. Macelwane (1883–1956)

James B. Macelwane was born on the northern shore of Sandusky Bay near Port Clinton, Ohio, on September 28, 1883. He was the second of nine children born to Alexander Macelwane, a fisherman and farmer, and Catherine Agnes Carr. His formal schooling ended at the age of 15, when he began to work in his father’s fruit and fishing business. At the age of 18 he resumed his education by enrolling at Saint John’s College in Toledo, Ohio. He joined the Society of Jesus after 2 years of study and took his vows as a Jesuit on September 8, 1905. He then began the long course of studies in the classics, science, and theology required by Jesuits preparing for the priesthood. In 1908, Macelwane’s studies brought him to Saint Louis University, where he received his B.A. degree in 1910, his M.A. in 1911, and his M.S. in 1912. He was ordained a priest in 1918 and continued to study theology and teach physics at Saint Louis University until 1921. At that time he went to the University of California, where he received his Ph.D. in physics, with a seismological dissertation, in 1923.

Father Macelwane remained at the University of California as an Assistant Professor of Geology for 2 more years, during which time he established the first chain of seismographs in northern California and studied several California earthquakes. He returned to Saint Louis University in 1925 where he was appointed Professor of Geophysics and Director of the new Department of Geophysics. He immediately began to develop the department and a program of graduate studies in geophysics as he had done in California. He also spearheaded the formation of the Jesuit Seismological Association, an organization that represented a revitalization of the preexisting Jesuit Seismological Service that had been founded in 1908. In addition, he was one of the leaders in establishing the Eastern Section of the Seismological Society of America in 1925.

Shortly after he established the geophysics department at Saint Louis University, he began to direct Ph.D. dissertations on various seismological subjects. William C. Repetti, S.J., used the arrival times of seismic body waves to infer a second-order discontinuity in the mantle at a depth of 950 km, and Cornelius Dahm found a sharp discontinuity overlying a 200-km-thick low-velocity layer just above the core. During this time, Father Macelwane developed travel time curves for various seismic phases. In 1935, working with George J. Brunner, S.J., Macelwane published a focal depth-time-distance chart with which earthquake focal depths, origin times, and epicentral distances from selected stations could be obtained simultaneously. Beginning in the late 1930s he worked with J. E. Ramirez, S.J., using a tripartite system of seismograph stations to show that microseisms were traveling, rather than standing, waves and that their origins could be traced to storms at sea.

In 1936, Macelwane published his Introduction to Theoretical Seismology, Part 1, Geodynamics . It was the first widely read book with a detailed exposition of the theory of seismic waves that could be grasped by the average student. In 1947 he published a popular book, When the Earth Quakes , trying to bring a scientific understanding of earthquakes to the lay public.

Father Macelwane was a tireless promoter of activities that might advance the geophysical sciences. He belonged to numerous scientific societies and served on many committees, often in a leadership role. For the American Geophysical Union he was Vice Chairman of the Seismology Section from 1935 to 1938, Section President from 1938 to 1941, a member of the Executive Committee of the Section on Seismology in 1947, and President of the Union from 1953 until his death in 1956.

Macelwane’s scientific and service contributions to geophysics were numerous and were extraordinary when we consider his additional commitment to his own institution, Saint Louis University. In addition to founding the Department of Geophysics, he served as Dean of the Graduate School from 1927 to 1933, chaired the Committee on Academic Rank and Tenure, and served on the University Board of Trustees. In 1944 he established the Institute of Technology and served as its first Dean. In addition, he always reserved time to teach at least one, and usually two, courses.

Father Macelwane received numerous scientific honors, including election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1944, the Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union in 1948, and the Mendel Medal of Villanova University in 1955. In addition, he received honorary doctoral degrees from Saint Norbert’s College, Washington University, John Carroll University, and Marquette University. Throughout his career, Macelwane was prominent in geophysical education. He served on Committees of Education of both the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) and the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers (AIME). Both organizations honored him with their highest awards, the SEG with an honorary life membership and the AIME with the Jackling Lecturer award.

Father Macelwane was hospitalized for general fatigue and intestinal disturbances on November 21, 1955, and underwent surgery on December 19. He seemed to rally, but then relapsed after a few weeks and died on February 15, 1956, at the age of 73. Because of his contributions to geophysics, his deep interest in education, and his encouragement of young scientists, AGU established the James B. Macelwane Medal to be awarded annually for significant contributions by outstanding young scientists.

—Brian J. Mitchell

Saint Louis University

St. Louis, Missori