Who Was Harlen Bretz?

J Harlen Bretz, whose given name was Harley J. Bretz, was born in 1882 in Michigan. The oldest of five children, Bretz had an early interest in astronomy and the natural environment that surrounded him on the farm where he grew up. Originally intending to be a missionary, he entered Albion College in 1901. His focus of study changed, however, and he graduated in 1905 with a degree in biology. A few years later, he earned his Ph.D. in geology from the University of Chicago.

In 1923, the Journal of Geology published Bretz’s paper, “The Channeled Scablands of the Columbia Plateau,” in which he presented his theory that the unique landscape was created by a massive flood originally called the Spokane Flood. The academic world of geologists was not ready for this controversial idea, however, and in 1927 the Washington Academy of Sciences invited him to a meeting to defend his hypothesis. After his presentation, six other presenters followed with scathing rebuttals of the flood theory in an effort to silence Bretz and his unconventional notion.

The biggest flaw with Bretz’s hypothesis was that he didn’t have a water source for his cataclysmic flood. The answer to that lay in the hands of another geologist, J.T. Pardee. Working for the U.S. Geological Survey, he had been studying ripple marks from Glacial Lake Missoula. It wasn’t until 1940 that Pardee was able to prove that Lake Missoula had gotten deep enough to break up the ice that had damned it and flowed to the only place it could, the scablands, thus giving Bretz’s theory credence.

Over the subsequent years, more evidence of the great flood, now thought to have been many floods, began to be discovered. In 1974, satellite imagery showing the dramatic landscape was the last bit of evidence that geologists needed to fully accept what Bretz had been saying for decades. The Geological Society of America awarded him the Penrose Medal in 1979, and a plaque was dedicated to him at Dry Falls State Park in Coulee City, Washington. J Harlen Bretz died in 1981 at the age of 98.