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La Jolla’s John Shelton leaves mark on geology

Third-generation La Jollan John Shelton died at his home Thursday, July 24.

Critical of textbooks and curriculums that taught geology through memorization, he authored “Geology Illustrated,” in the 1960s and it was later named one of the most important 100 books of the last 100 years by Scientific American.

Shelton currently has an exhibit of his photographs on display at the San Diego Natural History Museum. It will run through Nov. 2.

He graduated from La Jolla High in 1931 and went on to Pomona College.

“I didn’t discover geology until my junior year,” Shelton said in a recent interview with the La Jolla Light. Too far along in his studies to change majors, he graduated with a dual degree in math and music.

He returned to teach at Francis Parker but could not escape enthrallment with the earth’s history.

“It’s fascinating to speculate on where we all came from and where we’re all going,” Shelton said.

He turned to the college professor who had introduced him to geology, and upon his advice, applied to Yale.

“I feel like my whole life has been a procession of (overlapping) interests,” he said in the interview with the Light.

Shelton resumed teaching and worked for the U.S. Geological Survey. An avid pilot, he logged almost 6,000 hours over his lifetime.

Always on the lookout for a new way to reach his students, Shelton began taking photographs of different land formations to demonstrate the dynamic geologic forces at work. His collection of photos, begun in the ‘30s and continuing through the ‘90s, spans the globe.

Shelton called himself a “student of the earth.”

The current Natural History Museum show, “Aerial Portraits of the American West,” offers a unique perspective of geologic formations and processes from Alaska to Baja, California. The photographs were taken by Shelton over the course of several decades.

“It’s a collection of four-by-five-(inch) negatives that John shot from the 1940s right up through the ‘70s,” said Michael Field, exhibit designer.

Shot with a military aerial reconnaissance camera, the negatives are so large that they show tremendous detail. Many of the photos would be nearly impossible to capture today because air clarity has been reduced by pollution.