Jump to Content

Collection Guide
Collection Title:
Collection Number:
Get Items:
View entire collection guide What's This?
PDF (116.17 Kb) HTML
Search this collection
Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Restrictions
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Biography
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Digital Content

  • Descriptive Summary

    Languages: English
    Contributing Institution: Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego
    9500 Gilman Drive
    La Jolla 92093-0175
    Title: J. Edward Hoffmeister Papers
    Identifier/Call Number: MSS 0231
    Physical Description: 5.5 Linear feet (8 archives boxes, 4 card file boxes, 1 flat box and 3 oversize items)
    Date (inclusive): 1925-1982
    Abstract: John Edward Hoffmeister (1899-1991) earned his degrees from Johns Hopkins University; an A.B. in chemistry in 1920 and a Ph.D. in geology in 1923. Field work in Tonga and Fiji in 1926, 1928, and 1934 formed the basis of his antecedent-platform theory of coral reef development in the 1930s. His primary collaborator was Harry S. Ladd. Hoffmeister was a professor of geology and an administrator at the University of Rochester from 1923 until 1964, and continued his work on corals during his retirement in Florida. The Papers span 1925-1982 with the bulk documenting the years 1926-1935. While there is no documentation of his work at the University of Rochester or his service during World War II, and little record of his Florida work, documentation of his Pacific expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s is quite rich. This early documentation includes numerous lantern slides and 16 mm films taken during his Pacific expeditions, along with personal and professional correspondence, field notebooks, diaries, and records of the Pacific Science Association's committee on coral reefs, and ephemera. Ephemera include geological specimens, a Fijian war club and two walking sticks.


    Original film formats are restricted. Digital surrogates are available for viewing.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    In the early decades of the 20th century, when J. Edward Hoffmeister undertook his investigations of corals in the South Pacific, the "coral reef problem" was of great interest to scholars. At issue was a seeming paradox: the food and light conditions necessary to reef-forming corals are found only in relatively shallow water. Nevertheless, two common coral formations, atolls and barrier reefs, frequently occur far below the ocean's surface. Most of the proposed solutions to this problem have postulated a change in sea level relative to the reefs' foundation. Darwin theorized that the land beneath these kinds of corals sank, and the sea level correspondingly rose, as the reefs grew. Others, following the American geologist Reginald Daly's lead, proposed a more complicated scenario of glacial warming and coral growth. Since neither theory could, by itself, account for all observed forms of coral reefs, the debate continued.
    On the basis of their field research in Tonga and Fiji, Hoffmeister and his colleague Harry Ladd argued that the growth of coral reefs required only the antecedent existence of a suitable submerged "platform" and that no change in sea level was necessary. Although this theory is now considered less persuasive than either Darwin or Daly's explanations, it has not been wholly discredited. The field notebooks, drawing books, lantern slides, diaries, and some of the correspondence in this collection provide a unique retrospect on the social, intellectual and physical circumstances that shaped Hoffmeister's thinking on the origins of coral reefs. The letters to and from Harry Ladd, W. A. Setchell and T. Wayland Vaughn, and the files on the international committee on the coral reefs of the Pacific, give a sense of some of the interests current among a broad community of geologists in the first half of this century.
    In addition to their contribution to the history of geology, the Hoffmeister papers offer anthropologists rare documentary evidence of native life in Fiji and Tonga during the 1920s and 1930s. The collection includes hundreds of feet of 16mm black and white film covering feasts, dancing, rural and urban housing, and village scenes from the two island groups. Hoffmeister's letters to his wife and the diaries he kept during the second expedition are also useful sources of information about the islanders' daily lives.
    The collection is limited to Hoffmeister's research on corals. His years as a professor of geology and dean at the University of Rochester are not covered here, nor is there any biographical material. His contributions to the Army-Navy Joint Task Force on Bikini Island are alluded to in correspondence, but there is no supporting evidence in this collection.


    John Edward Hoffmeister (1899-1991) was a professor of geology and an administrator at the University of Rochester from 1923 until 1964. His research focused on the development of coral reefs, based on field work he conducted in the Tongan and Fijian islands in the late 1920s and early 1930s and off the coast of Florida during the 1960s and 1970s.
    As a graduate student, Hoffmeister worked with T. Wayland Vaughn at the National Museum of Natural History. He was also a fellow of the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, 1921-1929, where he was invited to join the expedition of W.A. Setchell in 1926 to study geology in Eua, an island in the Tongan Group. Hoffmeister's second Pacific expedition was in 1928 with Harry Ladd, again in the Tongan Group. In 1934, he and Ladd made another joint expedition, this time to Fiji. During these expeditions, Hoffmeister made several films of island life and corresponded regularly with his family back home.
    His researches on these expeditions resulted in twenty-five articles and included his articulation of the antecedent-platform theory of coral reef formation. This theory posed an alternative to Darwin's theory of subsidence which suggested that reefs have sunk with the subsidence of the sea floor. Hoffmeister's theory suggests that no change in sea level is necessary for understanding reef development.
    During World War II, Hoffmeister's knowledge of the Pacific was put to use making bombing maps of the Pacific for the Army Map Service. He worked as a geologist for the United States Geological Survey in 1942-44 and, in 1946, consulted on the Bikini atom bomb test.
    Following nearly forty years of service as an educator and administrator at the University of Rochester, Hoffmeister returned to field work on corals off the coast of Florida at the University of Miami's marine laboratory. His post-retirement period was productive, resulting in several publications, including a summary of his Florida work in a book for popular audiences, LAND FROM THE SEA (1974).
    He was a fellow of the Geological Society of America, the Geological Association of Canada, and the Paleontological Society of America.

    Publication Rights

    Publication rights are held by the creator of the collection.

    Preferred Citation

    J. Edward Hoffmeister Papers, MSS 231. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired 1992.

    Digital Content

    The films from this collection have been digitized.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Coral reefs and islands -- Pacific Ocean
    Coral reef -- Biology
    Corals -- Fiji
    Corals -- Tonga
    Tonga -- Social life and customs
    Tonga -- Description and travel
    Fiji -- Social life and customs
    Fiji -- Description and travel
    Photographic prints -- 20th century
    Diaries -- 20th century
    Geology -- Tonga
    Geology -- Fiji
    Geologists -- Biography
    Hoffmeister, J. Edward (John Edward), 1899-1991 -- Archives
    Vaughan, Thomas Wayland, 1870-1952 -- Correspondence
    Setchell, William Albert, 1864-1943 -- Correspondence
    Ladd, Henry, 1895-1941 -- Correspondence
    Hoffmeister, Ruth -- Correspondence