James Dwight Dana: Biography, Theory & Contributions

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

James Dwight Dana (1813-1895) was one of the most influential scientists of all time. In this lesson, learn about his interesting life and his many contributions to science.

A Voyage of Discovery

In 1838, a fleet of three ships set sail from the Virginia coast. These ships were just setting out on the United States Exploring Expedition, and along with sailors from the United States Navy, they were carrying a number of gifted scientists and illustrators on what would be a historic journey. Their goal was to explore the vast Pacific Ocean and all the lands in and around it.

On board one of the ships was a young geologist named James Dwight Dana, and over the next four years, he sailed with the Expedition, studying and documenting the animals, plants, and geological features along the way. He would go on to publish three incredibly influential books based on his work with the Expedition, along with many other books about geology, mineralogy, and zoology. Today, he is known as one of the greatest American scientists of all time.

James Dwight Dana (1813-1895) was one of the greatest geologists of all time.
James Dwight Dana in 1858

Early Life and Education of James Dwight Dana

James Dwight Dana was born in 1813 in Utica, New York. From the time he was a child, he was interested in science, and in 1830, he enrolled in Yale College to study geology. He graduated in 1833, and although he had always loved science, he was afraid that he would never be able to make a living as a full-time scientist. At the time, there were not many paying jobs available for scientists, and since Dana did not come from a wealthy family, he held little hope of working in science full time.

Instead, he initially took a job as a mathematics teacher for the US Navy. For the next three years, he sailed the Mediterranean instructing the midshipmen on board in mathematics. He didn't give up on science, however. While working on a navy ship, he made a detailed study of Mediterranean volcanoes, and quickly published his first scientific paper, On the Condition of Vesuvius in July, 1834.

After three years at sea, his former mentor at Yale, Benjamin Silliman, offered him a position in the chemistry laboratory at Yale in 1836. Dana jumped at the opportunity to continue his career in science, and in 1837, published his first book, A System of Mineralogy. The next year, he went back to the ocean, joining the United States Exploring Expedition in 1838. On this historic voyage, he would do some of his most important work and secure his legacy as one of the most influential scientists in the world.

Contributions to Science

After the end of his historic sea voyage, Dana spent the next 14 years writing up all the discoveries he had made. These were published in three books: Zoophytes, Crustacea, and Geology.

An image of a crab that appeared in Crustacea by James Dwight Dana
An image of a crab that appeared in Crustacea by James Dwight Dana

Zoophytes are small ocean polyps like corals, and before Dana, no one had really studied them in any great detail. Dana spent a lot of time studying the reefs of the South Pacific, and his research showed that these reefs were created by tiny zoophytes. Although we now know that his theory of reef formation is correct, it was revolutionary at the time. In Zoophytes, Dana not only developed an entirely new system to classify these tiny creatures, but also accurately described their physiology for the first time ever.

He also expanded on earlier work done by his friend Charles Darwin to develop a new theory of how coral reefs form. He showed that the three main types of reefs, known as fringing reefs, barrier reefs, and atolls, were actually all the same type of reef, just at different stages of development, and that all three were formed by subsidence of the surrounding land.

Dana showed that zoophytes, like this coral, were responsible for creating reefs.
Dana showed that zoophytes, like this coral, were responsible for creating reefs.

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