S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Becker, Dr George Ferdinand (geology)

Born: 5 January 1847, New York, United States of America.
Died: 20 April 1919, Washington DC, United States of America.

George F. Becker, American geologist, mathematician and physicist, obtained the degree Bachelor of Arts (BA) at Harvard University in 1868, and a PhD at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, in 1869. He was a reporter for the New York Herald during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The next year he graduated at the Royal Academy of Mines in Berlin. From 1874 to 1879 he lectured in mining and metallurgy at the University of California at Berkeley. He then joined the United States Geological Survey, working particularly on the geology of mineral deposits. His most important publication during this period was a monograph, Geology of the Comstock lode and the Washoe District (1882), which dealt with a complex gold and silver deposit in what is now western Nevada. Another of his monographs dealt with the Geology of the quicksilver deposits of the Pacific Slope (1888). From 1899 he headed a division of chemical and physical research at the United States Geological Survey and also worked as a geophysicist at the Carnegie Institution, conducting pioneering investigations of chemico-physical problems. He wrote various books and reports on geological and related topics, including an historical review of atomic weight determinations (1880), mathematical tables of hyperbolic functions (with C.E. van Orstrand, 1909), and reports on the goldfields of the southern Appalachian Mountains (1895) and Alaska (1898). His many scientific papers dealt with various aspects of rock mechanics, the geology of mercury deposits, the geology of the Phillipine Islands, the process of crystallisation, and thermo-chemistry.

In 1896 Becker visited South Africa on behalf of an English company to inspect its gold and diamond mines and in particular to study the origin of the gold-bearing strata of the Witwatersrand. His observations on the Witwatersrand were published in a paper titled "The Witwatersrand banket, with notes on other gold-bearing pudding stones" in the 18th Annual Report (1897) of the United States Geological Survey. It became the most quoted study on this topic during the next decade. The shapes and distribution of the pebbles in the conglomerate, the absence of large quantities of fine-grained silt, the absence of river channels and large nuggets, the development of conformable stratification and other observations led him to conclude that the conglomerates were originally deposited in the sea by currents flowing from east to west along a sinking shoreline, while the gold in them was thought to be detrital but to have been dissolved and redeposited. He also published a paper on the "Auriferous conglomerates of the Transvaal" in the American Journal of Science (1898). In 1909 he confirmed his views in a discussion of a paper by J.W. Gregory* on the origin of the Witwatersrand gold deposits, in Economic Geology. An article by him on "A new diamond field in the Transvaal" was published in Science in 1897. He also wrote an article on "The Witwatersrand and the revolt of the Uitlanders" for the National Geographic Magazine in 1896. He was an original Fellow of the Geological Society of America (of which he was president in 1914) and an honorary member of the Geological Society of South Africa.

List of sources:
Debus, A.G. (Ed.) World who's who in science. Chicago: Marquis, 1968.

Dictionary of American biography. New York: Scribner, 1927-1936.

Geological Society of South Africa. Transactions, 1910, Vol. 10, list of members.

Hall, A.L. A bibliography of South African geology to the end of 1920. Pretoria: Geological Survey, Memoir No. 18, 1922.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Pretorius, D.A. The depositional environment of the Witwatersrand goldfields: a chronological review of speculations and observations. Minerals Science and Engineering, 1975, Vol. 7, pp. 18-47.

Rogers, A.W. The pioneers of South African geology and their work. Transactions of the Geological Society of South Africa, 1937, Annexure to Vol. 39, pp. 1-139.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Compiled by: C. Plug