Marie Morisawa

There are many paths into a geology career, especially if you are a woman born in the early to mid-twentieth century, when most of the traditional ways in were closed. For me, it was trees–trees are rooted in dirt, which comes from ground-up/weathered rock.

Not that I have had a geology career. My degree is in forestry, earned at a small college in the Adirondack Mountains where Precambrian rock outcrops are common and the soil that conifers and northern hardwoods depend on has been scraped thin by passing continental glaciers during each ice age.

It is impossible to ignore geology there, and after a botanist introduced me to the wonders of the rocky world, I switched majors and went for a geology degree.

That didn’t work out for me the way it did for Marie Morisawa in the 1940s and 1950s. She advanced the whole field of geomorphology–the study of landforms–by switching her focus of interest.


Born in 1919 to an Asian father and white mother in Toledo, Ohio, Morisawa first earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Hunter College; her minor was chemistry.

That was in 1941. None of the online information I have found mentions what job opportunities and the social scene were like for a single, 22-year-old, Japanese-American female math whiz/chemist in the 1940s– especially after December 7, 1941–but it must have been difficult.

Unsurprisingly, Morisawa went back to school, graduating with an MA in theology and an MS in geology in 1952. Yes, theology. There is also no information about why she switched over to geology; perhaps she attended Samuel Knight’s Science Camp in the Medicine Bow Mountains and it made a difference.

Sugar Loaf Mountain in the Medicine Bow range. (Mike Coghlan. CC BY 2.0)

This scenic part of the world clearly shows how geologic processes shape the land:

Whatever stirred her interest in Earth’s landforms, throughout her long career Marie Morisawa also remained sensitive to the social, as well as the scientific value, of this planet’s landscapes.

That is, she always kept the big picture in mind even when her work focused on something very small, like a creek trickling through a meadow, hidden by long grasses but not unheard.

Geomorphology and Marie Morisawa

The 1950s were a good time to be an American graduate student interested in landforms and how they evolved. The science of geomorphology was rapidly progressing thanks to recent technological advances.

Morisawa went back east and studied streams in Pennsylvania to earn a PhD from Columbia University in 1960. Her adviser, Arthur Strahler, is credited with being the one most responsible for this scientific field’s change in emphasis from “there is a creek running through that meadow” to “water flow in this creek (detailed data) is incising down through the dirt at a rate of X inches per year and here’s how it fits into the overall drainage system, with more data on how that system and each of its units affects human property, lives, and esthetic appreciation of this natural resource.”

You can imagine how detailed Morisawa’s thesis had to be satisfy Arthur Strahler. It turned out she was very very good at this new approach to geomorphology.

There is no single scientific breakthrough I can find attributed to Marie Morisawa, just a long list of papers, books, and other references on Google Scholar online that all have high numbers of citations. You don’t see such an impressive wall of cites very often.

Morisawa also studied landslides and other effects of the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake in Yellowstone. (I. J. Witkind, U. S. Geological Survey. Public domain)


Besides teaching and mentoring students, she researched a number of areas, like the effects of earthquakes or plate tectonics on the landscape, but her first love was always streams.

Marie Morisawa affected geoscience much like that little creek affects the meadow and hillside it’s flowing through–in a big way, but quietly, slowly, efficiently over the years, drop by drop, paper by paper, student by student.

It was a pleasure to be around Marie Morisawa and share her love for life, for geomorphology, for the natural world, and for people. She was greatly beloved by all who knew her, and she took special pride in her teaching and in her students . . .Geomorphology was her life, and she lived it to the fullest. It is difficult to describe what she meant to the profession and people in general with anything less than superlatives. She was dignified but not presumptuous; humble but not meek; brilliant but not braggy; gracious but not showy; warm but not gushy. Indeed the memory of Marie Morisawa is indelibly imprinted on those of us who knew her, and her writings will live on as one of the true legacies of her life.

— D. R. Coates

Featured image: A stream landscape in Pennsylvania. Nicholas A. Tonelli. CC BY-2.0.


Coates, D. R. October, 1995. Marie Morisawa, 1919-1994. Geological Society of America Memorials. 26:15-18. n.d. Morisawa, Marie (earth scientist). Last accessed March 29, 2018.

Wikipedia. 2018. Marie Morisawa. Last accessed March 29, 2018.

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