History - old option

The Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences has existed since the late 1700’s at Columbia, but under many different names and purposes. In the late 1700’s, Geology was a science you could study under the Natural History department. Geologists then were mainly collecting and naming minerals. The first geologic course ever taught at Columbia was around this time, and it was Blowpipe Analysis.

In the early 1800’s, the new trend in geology was mapping. States wanted maps of their economic geology to figure out what natural resources were worth in their state. In the mid-1800’s, mining was the main focus and by 1864, the School of Mines & Engineering was formed and so was the birth of our department. Within the School of Mines & Engineering, students could study Geology & Mineralogy. Towards the end of the century, we separated from the School of Mines & Engineering and instead now fell under the School of Pure Science as a field of study (or major) that a student could take. And in 1895, Schermerhorn Hall was gifted to the Pure Sciences by the Schermerhorn family. The building was to be dedicated to the Natural Sciences, and was inscribed with a biblical verse right above the entrance: “Speak to the Earth, and it shall teach thee”.

In the 1920’s we became the Department of Geology and Mineralogy. Around this time, professors and students alike were going on expeditions across the world to places like the Gobi Desert, Alaska, and Antarctica. We were working with the American Museum of Natural History to send our personnel on these expeditions. In this time period, universities were like museums, collecting fossils, rocks, and minerals and displaying them for people to see. In the 1930’s, we dropped mineralogy and became the Department of Geology. This was most likely due to a fall in the interest of identifying and collecting minerals. However, during and after World War I, interest spiked again as the government began looking for mineral wealth that would help win the wars. During World War II, metals were highly researched to help create new weapons and planes.

In 1945, after World War II, mapping and seismology was in demand for geologists. Other new fields were popping up constantly and our department no longer had the proper lab space to keep up with demand. In 1948, we were given the Lamont Campus so we could have more space to research these new fields. However, our department had to raise enough money to run Lamont for at least 6 years. We were able to raise the money, and thus was the start of Columbia’s new research institute, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

At the start, almost all research at Lamont was being done by professors in our department. This new space allowed for the birth of new topics to study. Geodesy, seismology, submarine geology, magnetism, paleontology, geochemistry, and submarine acoustics were among the new fields now being researched at Lamont by many of the department’s faculty.

Lamont successfully continued to operate past the six-year mark and new research continued to flourish there, including atmospheric science and oceanography. Our department and Lamont have worked hand-in-hand since its inception with most of our professors having their offices and labs at the Lamont campus. In the 1970’s they no longer felt the department name accurately reflected the multitudes of topics being taught and researched by our faculty, so the department changed names again to the Department of Geological Sciences. And then the final name change happened in the early 1990’s, to the current day title: The Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences. This new name covers the variety of science taught and studied by all of our professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students.

  • One of our professors first coined the term global warming back in the 1970’s which helped push forward the idea of climate change. That same professor won awards equivalent to the Nobel Prize in geology: the Craaford Prize, and the Vetlesen Prize.


  • Our department traces our first female PhD graduate to 1903. It was very rare for women to be in college at that time, let alone in graduate programs. That same student later was hired as a professor in our department in the 1930’s.


  • In the early 1900’s, one of our professors aided New York City in constructing one of the major aqueducts that deliver drinking water to the city every day. This same professor helped engineer the Hoover Dam.


  • In the 1960’s, a student working towards their Ph.D. in our department found evidence that confirmed the theory of seafloor spreading.


  • We had professors working with the government during World War II to aid them in mapping landforms and geologic processes. 


  • We had professors working on the Manhattan Project, the US nuclear bomb experiments. It was scientists in Schermerhorn Hall and Pupin Hall that performed the first nuclear fission test.  


  • One of our professors founded the Journal of Paleontology.