Sue Tyler Freidman Medal Citation and Reply - College of Arts ...

Sue Tyler Freidman Medal Citation and Reply - College of Arts ...

5 June 2013

Henry Frankel (Sue Tyler Friedman Medal for 2013), Geological Society London)

The Sue Tyler Friedman Medal, awarded for excellence in research into the history of geology,

was endowed by a Foundation established by one of this Society’s Senior Fellows – the late

distinguished carbonate sedimentologist and historian of science, Professor Gerald Friedman.

The Award, named for Gerald’s wife, goes this year to Henry Robert Frankel, of the University

of Missouri-Kansas City.

Hank Frankel has made a long-term and determined effort to understand the central scientific

issues involved in the continental drift controversy – not just the ideas that ‘won’, but also the

dead-ends and blind alleys that caused all the muddles along the way. From an exhaustive study

of original sources, he has now published what must prove to be the definitive account of the

evolution of ideas that led from continental drift to plate tectonics. His massive four-volume

work, The Continental Drift Controversy (2012), now provides anyone writing about this field in

the future with a uniquely authoritative account – one that has been read and commented upon by

many of the participants themselves. Moreover, this monumental work captures for future

generations – including, crucially, students of the history of science – the unique way that

knowledge is created in Earth science.

Herein lays the work’s particular importance. Hitherto, accounts of knowledge-making in

science have concentrated mostly on physics and chemistry where there is a clear interaction

between theory and experimentation. However, the way an area of science develops in the

absence of classical experiment, as is the case with much of our subject, is quite different from

this general paradigm. For this reason Frankel’s book should influence the teaching of History

of Science everywhere.

Henry Robert Frankel, please accept with our deep respect and gratitude, the Sue Tyler Friedman

Medal of The Geological Society of London.


Mr. President, thank you for your kind words.

I took no geology courses while an undergraduate at Oberlin College during the first half of the

1960s. My loss! Studying philosophy of science at Ohio State in the late 1960s, I became

interested, like most philosophers of science at the time, in scientific controversies. In the

middle-1970s when I finally learned of continental drift and plate tectonics while teaching a

history of science course at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, it took no imagination to see

that I should test philosophical accounts of scientific change against them. Where had I been for

the preceding decade? After writing papers on different aspects of the controversy, I decided to

pull them together as a book. I began talking in earnest to key participants in the controversy

and development of plate tectonics. Two participants, Ted Irving and Dan McKenzie gently told

me that I had much more to learn. With their encouragement and help, and with help from many

participants, I began anew. I also stopped treating the drift story as a way to test philosophical

views and began trying to figure out what actually happened.

I am particularly pleased and honored to receive the Sue Tyler Friedman Medal of The Geological

Society of London. Many participants in the story I have grown to love have been honored with

your medals. Wollaston Medal recipients include David, Seward, Daly, Bailey, Holtedahl, Holmes,

Vening Meinesz, Jeffreys, Bullard, Ewing, Bagnold, Romer, Wilson, McKenzie, Matthews, Le

Pichon, Morgan, Trümpy, and Irving. Recipients of other medallists include Arkell, Chaloner,

Dorothy Hill, Joly, Westoll, and Vine. Moreover, and to my delight, the Geological Society of

London has begun an archive on the history of plate tectonics, and already plans to house the papers

of Irving, McKenzie, and Vine – an excellent beginning.

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