September 30, 2020 marks 150 years since the birth of Thomas W. Lamont, without whom Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory would not exist.
After Mr. Lamont — a banker and philanthropist — died in 1948, his widow donated the family’s summer estate to Columbia University. The tree-filled property overlooking the Hudson River in Palisades, New York, became the home of the Lamont Geological Observatory in 1949, and the site of many history-making discoveries about our planet.
Born in upstate New York, Lamont attended Harvard and got his start as a journalist at the Boston Herald, New York Tribune, and other publications. He later went into business, working at Cushman Bros., a failing advertising film. Lamont helped to fix the financial situation at the company, which was later renamed to Lamont, Corliss and Company.
The company bailout earned Lamont an inroad into the banking industry. He worked his way up through the Bankers Trust, the First National Bank, and J.P. Morgan and Co, where he would eventually become chairman of its board of directors. From these positions of power, he helped to establish U.S. economic policy and financial stability in many countries.
His opinions and support were highly sought after. One of his grandsons remembers having lunch with him, when the phone rang and the butler said, “Mr. Lamont, it’s the President.” That would have probably been Franklin Roosevelt, says John Armbruster, a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the campus’ unofficial historian.
Armbruster added that “In 1929, when the stock market crashed, Herbert Hoover wanted to ask what was happening on Wall Street. He called, and the telephone rang here [on what is now the Lamont-Doherty campus].”
Armbruster estimates that Lamont was probably one of the 100 wealthiest people in the U.S. at the time. He and his wife, their four children, and many grandchildren enjoyed the luxurious estate in Palisades, where they would go hiking through the woods and cruising up the river on their yacht.
The family made generous donations to Harvard and Exeter, as well as England’s Canterbury Cathedral. Lamont also supported several women’s causes, including women’s suffrage and women’s colleges.
Thomas W. Lamont died in Boca Grande, Florida, in 1948. You can learn more about his life in the video below, narrated by Armbruster.
After Lamont’s death, his widow, Florence Corliss Lamont, an alumna of Columbia University, donated the property to the university in her husband’s memory. Although the gift was unrestricted, she was reportedly pleased with the university’s plans to make it into a center of geological research, and assured that “the world [would] benefit.”
Indeed it has. Through the Lamont family’s generous gift, the campus has been the birthplace of discoveries that have revolutionized our understanding of the planet. From what is now known as the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, researchers created the first maps of the ocean floor, sent seismometers to the moon, helped to explain and predict the powerful El Niño climate cycle, helped to bring climate change to light, and much more. And it will continue to make discoveries that shake the world, thanks in part to the generous donations of the Lamont family, the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Charitable Foundation, and many others, including donors like you.