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Sam Knight – The Great Geologist Who Could Take Correction From A Neighborhood Kid

Samuel Howell Knight (1892-1975) or Doc, as he was known to his many friends and students, was the son of the first Wyoming State Geologist, Wilbur C. Knight (1858-1903).  He grew up on the plains of Wyoming outside of Laramie but when it came to schooling he ventured far to Columbia University in New York City where he earned his PhD.  After he received his degree, though, he returned to Laramie and went on to become the second Wyoming State Geologist. Not only was Doc a fine State Geologist, adding to the knowledge of Wyoming and mapping many uncharted areas, he was the head of the Geology Department at Laramie for many years and created a strong geology department that is the base on which the University thrives today.

Uw Summer Field Party, Big Creek, 1930: B. Spalding and N. Burrage.

Doc Knight was a builder. He built many things during his time: an outstanding Geology department at the University of Wyoming; a renowned science camp at the base of the Snowy Range; a unique geologic museum located at the University in Laramie; a reputation as the best geology teacher with the love and respect of his many students; and a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Alcova Canyon, 1899 (well before Alcova Dam was built)

It is a lesser known fact, though, that while he was building the Rex out in front of the geology building, a local kid who was watching said to him, “You know, mister, Rex only has two fingers on his front feet.”  Doc after thanking the inquisitive youngster for his keen observation, went on to remove one of the three he had installed on Rex.

Doc’s geology department equipped many Wyoming students to participate nationwide in the petroleum industry. Students such as Bill Zacus (from Hanna), Burl Cary ( from Cheyenne), and  Don Lawson ( from Medicine Bow), went on to be noted contributors to the field of geology. Doc  also attracted out-of-state graduate students like John Haun, from Berea College, Kentucky, and  John Montaine,  from Dartmouth, who married one of the Corthell girls from Laramie.

Baggs, Wyoming, June 1914

Doc was a man of many talents. One student who arrived at the science camp asked the man repairing the water fountain out in front of the camp where he might find Dr. Knight.  The man laid down his wrench and shook the man’s hand and said, “I’m Dr. Knight, how can I help you?”

Doc’s Science School attracted participation from other geologic departments and professors,  from Columbia University to the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.   Doc was able to present his vast experience and notion of a “rational” geology as an educator.

The University today reflects Doc’s  broad educational platform in the modern facilities for the School of Energy Research and the Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute, as well as UW’s involvement in coal gasification facilities and research, a CO2 national sequestering project and allied energy investigations.

Bone Quarry, 1907.

Doc Knight is certainly Mr. Wyoming Geology and his influence has reached far and wide. In honor of Doc Knight in 1999 the American Heritage Center at UW,  after considerable input from citizens and the Wyoming Legislature,   named him “Wyoming Citizen of the Century.”  While Knight was a builder himself, I know the T Rex would join me in saying they don’t build many like Doc Knight, whose wisdom, ethics, knowledge and gift for teaching can still be felt on the plains of Wyoming today.

James A. Barlow, a founder of the Barlow and Haun firm of geologists in Casper, is well-known for his wide understanding of oil and gas resources in Wyoming and his predictions in the 1980s that southwest Wyoming would become a major gas producing region of the U.S., as has since come to pass. Barlow is retired and lives in Jackson.

Background Information

Samuel Howell Knight was born in 1892, and soon came to Laramie with his family in 1893. S.H. Knight’s father, Wilbur C. Knight, had accepted a position as the University of Wyoming’s first geology professor. S.H. Knight attended the University of Wyoming as a prep student and an undergraduate from 1907 to 1913. He attended Columbia University in New York from 1914 to 1916 for his graduate studies. He then joined the University of Wyoming faculty in 1916 as assistant professor of geology and curator of the Geological Museum. He became a full professor and the department head in 1917.

Also in 1917, S. H. Knight served in World War I in the capacity of First Lieutenant in military intelligence. In 1925, S.H. Knight established the University of Wyoming Science Camp in the Medicine Bow Mountains, about 35 miles from Laramie. The camp ran from 1925 to 1976. In his time at the University of Wyoming, S.H. Knight was involved in many facets of university life, such as serving as part of the Associated Students of University of Wyoming and the Athletics Committee in the 1920s-1940s, serving as president of the Alumni Association, sitting on the semi-centennial committee and the committee for the 75th anniversary of the University.

As a researcher, his interests ranged from the rounding of sand grains by wind transportation to the physical evolution of the mountains and depositional basins of southeastern Wyoming. S. H. Knight retired from the University of Wyoming in 1963, but remained Professor Emeritus until 1966. He died in 1975.

The S.H. Knight collection at UW’s American Heritage Center, now accessible online, contains materials documenting the University of Wyoming’s history and Knight’s career as a geologist and University of Wyoming professor. It includes Knight’s undergraduate and graduate course work and materials from his teaching and geological research such as publications, maps, and research.

This collection also contains records from Knight’s involvement with campus organizations and activities including the athletics and geology departments, the geology museum, UW Science Camp, and yearbook photos.

A large portion of this collection is audio/visual material such as photographs, negatives, lantern slides, and films. Much of this material documents UW’s history and shows buildings, landscapes, students, faculty, and activities. Other photographs are from Knight’s geological research and include Wyoming landscapes and rock cutouts. There are also a few films from the UW Science Camp. It also contains the papers of Knight’s father, W.C. Knight (the first professor of Geology at the University of Wyoming)- including correspondence and research related to his work as a geologist. Also included in this collection is genealogical research on the Knight family.

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2 Responses to Sam Knight – The Great Geologist Who Could Take Correction From A Neighborhood Kid

  1. Diana Kopulos October 8, 2017 at 10:53 am #

    spelling error paragraph 4: Bill Zakis of Hanna Wy.

    Laramie, Wyoming

  2. Nancy Espenscheid October 5, 2010 at 9:37 pm #

    I’ll always remember the class I took from Dr. Knight at UW. It was a privilege.

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