Thomas Chamberlin was born in Mattoon, Illinois on September 25, 1843. His family moved to Beloit, Wisconsin when he was three, and he graduated from Beloit College in 1866. During 1868/69 he studied geology at the University of Michigan and then became a professor of natural sciences at the state normal school in Whitewater, Wisconsin.
In 1873 he joined the Wisconsin Geological Survey, and in 1882 John Wesley Powell appointed him as head of the glacial division of the U. S. Geological Survey, a post he held until 1904, concomitant with other positions.
In June 1886 the regents chose Chamberlin to succeed John Bascom as president, but Chamberlin was reluctant to leave his geological work and to get too involved in the regents’ conflict with Bascom, so he made the appointment effective in June 1887. He was the first leader of the university from the Midwest. Chamberlin encouraged graduate education, attracted national caliber faculty to the university, and is generally credited with moving Wisconsin from a college to a university.
Although he was an effective leader, Chamberlin grew increasingly dissatisfied with his administrative duties, and in June 1892 he left Wisconsin to head the Department of Geology at the University of Chicago. He continued his research in glaciology and was considered to be the country’s leading glaciologist. He remained at the University of Chicago until his retirement in 1918. He died in Chicago on November 15, 1928.