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.