Lewis Woolman, 1841 - 1903

by Brian Stevenson
last updated August, 2016

Lewis Woolman had a long-time fascination with geology and microscopy. His amateur enthusiasm paid off in 1889, when he was hired by the State of New Jersey, USA, to document the mineral layers through which water wells were being drilled. On his own time, he also continued to study specimens from wells and other sources in surrounding states. The majority of Woolman’s microscope slides date from that time, and are of such subjects. Additional slides were apparently acquired from exchanges with other microscopists. No records have been located to indicate that Woolman sold his microscope slides, suggesting that slides such as those shown in Figure 1 were produced for his personal use, or given to/traded with colleagues or institutions.

Figure 1. Examples of microscope slides by Lewis Woolman. He was a member of the Society of Friends (“Quakers”), so Woolman’s slides are dated in that denomination’s style of not using Roman/pagan names for months - as with the upper right slide labeled “7 mo” (7th month, i.e. July).


Figure 2. Fossil foraminifera from Wildwood, New Jersey, photographed with crossed polarizing filters.


Lewis Woolman was born January 1, 1841, in the Frankford district of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. He was the only son of James and Alice Woolman. Lewis’ given name was his mother’s maiden name. A sister, Elizabeth Lewis Woolman, was born a year and a half later.

In 1855, Lewis entered Westtown Academy, a Quaker school in Philadelphia. There, he developed interests in nature, especially minerals and rocks.

A colleague, C. Canby Balderston, later wrote, “The study of geology, which Lewis began at Westtown almost before geology was a science, he pursued systematically during a considerable part of his life. He became acquainted, one by one, with all the local geologists. He early became an active member of the Academy of Natural Sciences. He took days off from his business for field work alone, with special companions and with classes from the Academy. He studied minerals with the mineralogists, rocks with the petrologists, fossils with the paleontologists. If he had been a professor paid for his time to do such work, no more should have been expected of him than he accomplished in his intervals of business. Thus he studied eastern Pennsylvania, particularly the group comprising the Philadelphia belt of rocks and clays, until he became an authority on them”.

Those interests likely led to his investing is schemes such as the 1865 Freel’s Run Oil Company of West Virginia. It Is not clear whether or not such ventures were successful for Lewis. Censuses and tax records of the early 1860s through 1880s list Lewis as being a salesman. Balderston’s eulogy implied that Woolman continued to work for others’ businesses throughout his life.

During the 1880s, Woolman began amateur studies of materials brought up during the digging of water wells. An 1888 report to the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia wrote, “Mr. Lewis Woolman stated that there was commenced in the summer of 1886 at Atlantic City, N.J. an artesian well, the drilling of which has been since continued with some intermission until, at the present time, a depth of 1121 feet has been reached. During a recent cessation in the work caused by delay in the receipt of pipe for tubing the well he had been permitted through the courtesy of the gentlemen interested in the enterprise to turn over and examine the sands, clays and marls accumulated in the dump heap and had found many fossil representatives of life forms, including a bone - the articulating end of a femur or humerus of an animal belonging to the Crocodilia ... and a few shells and fish teeth ... There have been obtained from the well 52 species in all, 42 being mollusks. Many of the smaller shells were entire and quite perfect but most of the larger ones were fragmentary, having been broken in pieces by the drill. (The engineer in charge) also kindly furnished a minute description of the thickness and character of all the sands passed through, by a careful examination of which and a grouping of the smaller seams with the larger ones that give character to formations”.

Woolman also recovered diatoms from the Atlantic City diggings. Notes in The Microscope, 1889, acknowledged receipt, “from Mr. Lewis Woolman a slide of the Atlantic City fossil Diatoms”, and reported, “We recently had a pleasant call from Mr. Lewis Woolman, the discoverer of the remarkable deposit of fossil diatoms at Atlantic City, N.J. During the boring of an artesian well these wonderful forms were found at a depth varying from four hundred to about seven hundred feet. Mr. Woolman deserves great credit for his discovery and for the acumen that lead him to it. He will have his reward, if in no other way, at least in the consciousness of having discovered the most important collection of these magnificent plants since the finding of the famous Santa Monica diatomaceous flotsam”. The Microscopical Bulletin published this acknowledgement in 1890, “From Lewis Woolman, we have received a slide of diatoms taken from the famous Atlantic City well at a depth of 625 feet, showing Actinocyclus and other interesting forms”.

Presumably based on his detailed evaluations of the Atlantic City well and others, Lewis Woolman was hired in 1889 by the Geological Survey of New Jersey to contribute analyses of well diggings within that state, for publication in The Annual Report of the State Geologist. These reports continued until his death.

Figure 3. Photographs and drawings of diatoms from Woolman’s 1894 “Artesian wells in southern New Jersey and at Crisfield, Maryland”, from The Annual Report of the State Geologist (New Jersey).


Woolman also acquired and mounted specimens from many other locations, either collected by himself or, presumably, from exchanges with other microscopists. In 1893, The Observer printed, “We are indebted to Mr. Lewis Woolman, of Philadelphia, for a fine mount of foraminifera from Mornington, Australia”, and “Also to Mr. Lewis Woolman, of Philadelphia, for two slides of fossil fresh water diatoms from Cold Spring Harbor, L.I. These diatoms occur in clay and were collected on the Cold Spring Harbor excursion of the A.A.A.S. last month. These mounts were made from the clay without treatment, it being mixed with water and a drop of the water containing the unconcentrated material rich in diatomaceous forms dried on the cover. We are happy to announce that we shall be able to distribute some of this material at a later date”. Of the latter, Woolman further wrote, “I send for distribution among the members of The Observer's Club a rich diatomaceous earth collected by myself during the past summer upon the excursion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to Cold Spring Harbor, on the north side of Long Island, about thirty miles east of Brooklyn. The deposit occurs at Hammond's brick yards upon the eastern side of the harbor near where it widens out into Oyster Bay. To the workmen this earth is known as floating clay, because, thrown upon the water when dry, it floats until saturated. The light specific gravity of the earth is due to the fact that it is composed almost entirely of the minute shells of diatoms which hold a quantity of air in the hollow between their opposing valves”.

A fossil of a nautilus collected by Woolman was proposed in 1893 to be a new species, Volutoderma Woolmani.

The 1902 Annual Report of the State Geologist stated, “Mr. Lewis Woolman has continued to collect data concerning the artesian wells in the State, particularly in the southern portion, and in part presents a record of the more important of the deep wells drilled during the year. Attention is called particularly to the records of the wells at Hammonton and Cape May. Mr. Woolman's tentative conclusion that the water horizon found at Hammonton at between 230 and 310 feet from the surface is the same as the great Atlantic City water horizon at from 780 to 860 feet is interesting and important. So, too, is the evidence from the Cape May well, that these same beds, which occur at Cape May at 900 feet, are not water-bearing at that point, although they furnish a good supply all along the coast between Harvey Cedars and Wildwood”.

Very little such information was provided in the 1903 Report. Instead, “On the following pages a record of the new wells bored during the year 1903 and reported to the Survey are given. This record is not so detailed as in former years, owing to the sudden death early in the year of Lewis Woolman, who had with painstaking care collected the data for previous reports. The Survey has not been able in any case to verify the records, nor to examine samples, but publishes the data substantially as reported by the well drillers”.

Lewis Woolman had died on March 13, 1903, at his home in Philadelphia.

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia included in its official records that it, “desires to place on record its appreciation of the loss it has sustained in the death of Lewis Woolman, who, since his election to membership in 1884, has manifested a constant interest in the well-being of the society. His work in connection with the geology of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, especially as illustrated by the boring of artesian wells, formed a valuable addition to knowledge. He was thorough and accurate in his methods, while his intercourse with his fellow-members was characterized by a hearty cheerfulness and sincerity. He was active in promoting the interests of the Biological as well as those of the Mineralogical and Geological Section, and during the latter months of his life he rendered service to the Academy as a member of the Committee on Accounts. His memory will be held in grateful recollection”. The Academy later purchased “One Acme, No. 3, Microscope stand, formerly the property of Mr. Woolman”.

C. Canby Balderston presented the following memorial to Westtown Academy, describing much of Woolman’s microscopy work, “The work of the successive committees on Science and the Museum has consisted very largely in the individual work of its late chairman, Lewis Woolman, and it is no disparagement of the committee or the Association to say that we will find it a very difficult matter to fill his place. Your President has asked me to supplement our report with some account of what he has done. This I willingly assent to, but must say at the outset that I have no authentic data of any kind to refer to, and shall have to rely solely on my recollection of what I have known of his work, in addition to some facts in his early life which I have gleaned from his sister since his death. She tells me that Lewis's attention was first turned to the natural study of nature through Davis Reece, Westtown’s Governor during the decades just prior to the sixties. Very many of the older members of the Association will tell us even yet of the interest in natural history excited in them by ‘Master Davis’, even though they did not pursue it in after years to the purpose which Lewis Woolman did. ‘Master Davis’ had the faculty, among other things, of keeping the boys interested in the birds, the plants, the minerals and the other objects around them, and encouraged and assisted them in making collections. Like many other boys, Lewis carried home from Westtown his collections made during walking tours with ‘Master Davis’. In his case the collections were mainly minerals and rocks, and as the sequel proved, they were for study - for study for its own sake, as well as for what might be accomplished by a systematic study of the layers of the earth's crust.

I cannot follow Lewis Woolman’s work step by step. His active interest in our museum began about the time the present room was planned for museum use, and during the past eighteen years he has not only been a constant contributor to our growing collections, but he has diverted much other valuable museum material into channels leading this way. When the standing committees of this Association were first appointed he went, naturally, on this committee, and became at once the most effective working member. Although not originally named as chairman of the first committee, he was appointed by that committee to make, I think, its first report, and all subsequent reports have been prepared and presented by him.

Lewis Woolman was a worker. If he undertook a thing, whether voluntarily or by appointment, he had the faculty of keeping it moving. To this faculty of his we owe much of the marked growth of the museum during the past five years. Those of you who know what is in our museum, and who have followed the reports of this committee, know what he has done for us. This, however, is but a small fraction of the work which he managed to get in in the interval of his business; for Lewis Woolman, like the rest of us, had to devote the best of his time to business for a modest income, the surplus of which be freely used in trying to keep others interested in the studies which he found so full of meaning.

The study of geology, which Lewis began at Westtown almost before geology was a science, he pursued systematically during a considerable part of his life. He became acquainted, one by one, with all the local geologists. He early became an active member of the Academy of Natural Sciences. He took days off from his business for field work alone, with special companions and with classes from the Academy. He studied minerals with the mineralogists, rocks with the petrologists, fossils with the paleontologists. If he had been a professor paid for his time to do such work, no more should have been expected of him than he accomplished in his intervals of business. Thus he studied eastern Pennsylvania particularly the group comprising the Philadelphia belt of rocks and clays, until he became an authority on them.

But it was in the cretaceous and recent deposits of New Jersey, with their extensions into Delaware and Maryland, that Lewis did his most conspicuous and valuable work. In Pennsylvania we depend largely on mines, quarries and railroad cuts to reveal to us the underground structure. In New Jersey, south of the line of the Camden & Amboy R.R., there are very few opportunities of seeing below the surface. A few marl pits and marl banks, a few creek banks, an occasional shallow grading for road or railroad, a very few diggings of recent limestone; these and the gravel banks are about our only chances for seeing below ground. But the artesian wells, which go down hundreds, and in some cases thousands of feet, become, in the hands of a systematic student, the means of determining accurately the structure of costal plains, so that one may predict very closely what strata will be found in a given locality, of what thickness, and at what distance below the surface. This is precisely what Lewis Woolman did. The three characteristic marl beds of the State had been distinguished, and the various strata separating them, as well as those below and above them, had been recognized through outcrops and well borings, and a sectional chart of the State prepared and published. As Lewis became interested in the Stratification of New Jersey, many persons in different parts of the State were planning to bore for water. He took pains to find out where wells were to be bored. He would interview the well borer and the owner, and with their co-operation, and by frequent visits, he procured samples of the gravels, sands and clays, every change being noted, and the depth and thickness of each stratum, from the surface of the ground to the bottom of the well. These samples, carefully labeled, are stored by thousands in the room which he occupied at the Academy of Natural Sciences, many of them undoubtedly not worked out.

A miniature artesian well core, constructed of samples from a well at Atlantic City, beautifully arranged and displayed in a glass tube with the technical geological history painted on the frame, forms one of the most striking exhibits in our museum. Lewis Woolman did not stop with the identification of these rocks from below the surface. He matched those that were alike, and distinguished those that were different, checking up and correcting the previous work of the State Geological Survey, adding to the accuracy of the work as the number of wells increased, until he had reconstructed a section map of the State, showing the regular southward dip of all strata and their constantly increasing number, from Sandy Hook to Cape May. He actually constructed on a table in his room at the Academy, by means of graduated pins and colored strings, a skeleton sectional map of Southern New Jersey, from about 2500 feet below the sea level to the surface of the ground.

During the later years of this work he was recognized as an authority by the State Geological Board, and was employed by the department to prosecute the work above outlined, with special reference to the location under the surface of marl beds, brick clays, waterbearing gravels and other economic deposits. His work in locating the waterbearing gravels has been of especial value in fixing beyond doubt the depth below the surface of such gravels in any given locality.

I am aware that my time limit is about reached. It remains, however, to chronicle Lewis Woolman’s untimely death and give a feeble estimate of his worth. His work was at full tide when, on the 13 of the Third Month, 1903, at his place of business in Philadelphia, an alarming feeling of weakness compelled him to give up and go home, His heart had ceased to properly perform its function, and although there were hopeful times during the afternoon and evening, he quietly passed away in the early morning hours of the 13th.

I must not close this sketch without some reference to Lewis Woolman as a man, but as I cannot, from lack of time, tell all that I could of what he did, so I cannot, from lack of words to express it, say what I would like to of what he was. But I may borrow words to say that, ‘giving all diligence’, he added ‘to faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance patience, and to patience godliness, and to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness charity’, and that these things abounding in him, he was not ‘unfruitful in the knowledge of his Lord’. His care to ‘offend not in word or deed’ was a constant lesson. When his sudden call came, and he realized that his day was rapidly declining, notwithstanding his expressed disappointment that so many things which he had hoped to accomplish were unfinished, he could say, ‘Father, I am ready’, and lay down his head in peace. Truly, here was a man! Let us emulate him”.



Acts of the Legislature of West Virginia (1865) Freel’s Run Oil Company of West Virginia, page 240

Annual Report of the State Geologist (1890) Artesian wells, pages xix – xxii

Annual Report of the State Geologist (1902) Artesian wells, page 10

Annual Report of the State Geologist (1903) New deep wells in 1903, page 84

Balderston, C. Canby (1903) Lewis Woolman, The Westonian, Vol. 9, pages 149-151

Boyer, Charles S. (1895) A diatomaceous deposit from an artesian well at Wildwood, N.J., Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol. 22, pages 260-266

The Friend (1903) “Died, at his residence in West Philadelphia, on the 13th day of Third Month, 1903, Lewis Woolman, aged sixty-two years. A member of the Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia for the Northern District”, Vol. 76, page 368

The Microscopical Bulletin (1890) Note on slide by Lewis Woolman, Vol. 7, page 7

The Microscope (1889) Acknowledgements, Vol. 9, page 379

The Observer (1893) Notes on slides and material provided by Lewis Woolman, Vol. 5, pages 189, 284, and 350

Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1888) Geological results of the boring of an artesian well at Atlantic City, N.J, Vol. 39, page 339

Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1903) Vol. 55, pages 285, 810, and 812-813

U.S.A. birth, marriage, death, tax, and census records, accessed through ancestry.com

Whitfield, R.P. (1893) Notice of new Cretaceous fossils from the lower green marls of New Jersey, The Nautilus, Vol. 7, page 37

The Westonian (1893) “The sudden death of Lewis Woolman, on the 13th of last month removed another devoted friend of the school. He was entered as a student here in 1855, and has always been a rather frequent visitor. He entered heartily into the Old Scholars' movement and his interest in science led him to devote his energies to that department. He was chairman of the Sub-Committee on Science and the Museum, and gave much attention and thought to the classification and preservation of the material collected at the school. He will be greatly missed in this, his chosen field of work”, Vol. 9, page 61

Woolman, Lewis (1890) Geology of artesian wells at Atlantic City, N.J., Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Vol. 42, pages 132-147

Woolman, Lewis (1890) Marine and fresh water diatoms and sponge-spicules from the Delaware River clays of Philadelphia, Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Vol. 42, pages 189-191

Woolman, Lewis (1892) Isthmia nervosa, The Microscopical Bulletin, Vol. 15, page 15

Woolman, Lewis (1893) Cold Spring Harbor diatomaceous earth, The Observer , Vol. 5, page 350

Woolman, Lewis (1893) Artesian wells and water horizons in southern New Jersey, The Annual Report of the State Geologist, Geological Survey of New Jersey

Woolman, Lewis (1894) Artesian wells in southern New Jersey and at Crisfield, Maryland, The Annual Report of the State Geologist, Geological Survey of New Jersey, pages 153-218

Woolman, Lewis, and Charles S. Boyer (1898) Fossil mollusks and diatoms from the Dismal Swamp, Virginia and North Carolina; Indication of the geological age of the deposit, Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Vol. 50, pages 414-428