Curtis Fletcher Marbut revolutionized American thinking in soil science and had an international influence on the study of the geography of soils. He was a professor of geology at the University of Missouri from 1895 to 1910 and then a leading scientist for the Bureau of Soils at the US Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC, from 1910 to 1935. His writings make up much of the foundation for modern American geography and agricultural advancement.
Marbut’s Palatine German ancestors, the Meerboldts, immigrated to Philadelphia in 1784. Their pioneering experiences took them to South Carolina, Tennessee, and, by 1841, to Barry County, Missouri. There, in the Little Flat Creek valley, his parents Nathan and Jane Marbut reared a large family, naming the future scientist for two Union officers in the Civil War, Samuel Ryan Curtis and Thomas Clement Fletcher.
Born in 1863, Curtis Marbut attended the local Marbut school with twenty-four cousins and was instructed by another cousin. He became a teacher at age seventeen, but later enrolled for further schooling in an academy in Cassville. Subsequently, he recalled that the local professor’s field trips around Barry County in the early 1880s inspired him to learn of the natural world. Curtis raised cattle on his father’s farm, sold all his animals in 1885, and journeyed to Columbia to begin collegiate studies at the University of Missouri at the age of twenty-two.
University life suited the young scholar. Curtis graduated with a degree in geology in 1889 and then borrowed money to attend Harvard University, where he earned a master’s degree in geology in 1894. He completed a residency, course work, and a thesis, published as Physical Features of Missouri, but he never returned to take the oral exam for his doctorate: he was in Missouri teaching and had begun his long and distinguished publishing career.
Marbut never lost sight of home. In 1900 he purchased land adjacent to his grandfather’s Barry County property. The following year he and 425 other Marbuts attended a family reunion in the neighborhood. Thirty years later, as he planned for a retirement of writing, he designed his house in the New England Cape Cod style with interiors from a home-builders magazine. He supervised by letter the construction of the place he called Orchard Farm while relatives and workmen carried out his wishes along Little Flat Creek.
While Marbut taught at the university, he was a member of the Missouri Geological Survey and did extensive fieldwork from 1890 to 1904. He was the director of the Soil Survey of Missouri from 1905 to 1910. During these youthful years he became a charter member of two fraternities, a member of another, and bicycled across much of Europe in 1899–1900. He won a gold medal for the first comprehensive “Soil Survey Map of the United States,” which was displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
In 1909 Marbut’s wife, Florence, died. Their eldest daughter, Louise, assumed the role of surrogate mother for the other four children. Curtis Marbut never remarried. In 1910 he took a leave of absence from the university, a leave that continued for the rest of his life. He became a special agent for the federal Bureau of Soils, and by 1913 he was the scientist in charge and later the chief scientist. He accelerated his extensive field investigations by traveling in nearly every county in the United States. His worldwide study of soils included work and directing field trips in Canada, Western Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the interior of Brazil, Argentina, and the West Indies. He lectured at many universities, including several summers at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and served on numerous committees and commissions.
In 1920 Marbut introduced Soviet soil science to Americans by translating K. D. Glinka’s Great Soil Groups of the World and Their Development. This work laid the foundation for the international study of soils, with Marbut often serving as the chair of international delegations devoted to global research. During his tenure in Washington, DC, soil surveys were conducted across half of America, and his monumental works in the Bureau of Soils Bulletin in 1913 and the Atlas of American Agriculture in 1935 became foundational for American textbooks and teaching.
Marbut’s many honors included honorary doctorates from the University of Missouri in 1916 and Rutgers University in 1930. He was the president of the Association of American Geographers in 1924 and received the profession’s highest award, the Cullum Medal, in 1930. When Marbut reached seventy, his mandatory retirement from civil service was twice waived by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Marbut was in great demand by international scientific circles. Following a conference in Oxford, England, he contracted pneumonia on the Trans-Siberian Railway while traveling to organize soil surveys in China. He died in Harbin, China, on August 25, 1935.
Krusekopf, Henry H. Life and Work of C. F. Marbut: Soil Scientist, Professor of Geology, 1895–1910, University of Missouri, Soil Scientist, 1910–1935, USDA Bureau of Chemistry and Soils. Columbia, MO, 1942.
Marbut, Curtis F. Soil Reconnaissance of the Ozark Region of Missouri and Arkansas. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1911.
——. The Evolution of the Northern Part of the Lowlands of South-Eastern Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri, 1902.
——. The Physical Features of Missouri. Jefferson City, MO: Tribune Printing Co., 1896.
Marbut, Curtis Fletcher. Papers. (C3720). State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia Research Center.
Morrow, Lynn. “An Ozarks Landmark: The Curtis Fletcher Marbut House.” White River Valley Historical Quarterly 7, no. 9 (Fall 1981): 6–9.
Published November 3, 2023
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