The department of geoscientific studies at Princeton University dates from 1854, when Arnold Guyot was appointed by the College of New Jersey as Professor of Geography and Physical Geology. Guyot, formerly a professor at the University of Neuchatel, left Switzerland in the wake of the revolution of 1848, and lectured at Cambridge, Mass., before joining the College (formally renamed Princeton University in 1896). Guyot would remain the sole instructor in geological sciences for the next 19 years. In that time, he was largely responsible for the genesis of the Geological Museum (formerly housed in the building which bears his name), which grew out of the fossils and geological specimens he collected for instructional purposes. In 1873, Dr. Franklin C. Hill, the first addition to the proto-department, became Curator of the Geological Museum, then located in Nassau Hall. Also in that year the John C. Green School of Science was founded, bringing with it the appointment of Dr. Henry R. Cornwall as Professor of Analytical Chemistry and Mineralogy.
From its earliest years, the department was a leader in geological and paleontological fieldwork. In 1877, three of Guyot's students - William Berryman Scott, Henry F. Osborn and Francis Speer - participated in the first Princeton field expedition to Colorado and Wyoming for the purpose of collecting vertebrate fossils - no small undertaking since significant portions of the area were as yet unsettled. It was the inaugural expedition in a series of field trips to the American west made by Princeton students and faculty, eight of which Scott himself would lead between 1882-1893. Scott was later awarded the Blair Professorship of Geology and Paleontology (1884), the department chair (1904-1930), and introduced to the University a two-part course on evolution, a subject on which he published. Another important addition to the growing program in earth sciences came in 1882 with the appointment of William Libbey as Professor of Physical Geography. In 1880, Libbey had served as Guyot's assistant and later was the first student to receive the doctoral degree in science at Princeton.
Libbey also conducted extensive fieldwork and geographical exploration; among his travels was an attempted ascent of Mt. St. Elias in Alaska (1888), as well as two journeys to Greenland, first as geographer of the Peary Auxiliary Expedition (1894) and again as the leader of the Princeton scientific party on the Peary Club's relief ship (1899). His spectroscopal analysis of the gasses at Kilauea was the first detection of hydrogen in those emissions. Despite the growth of geological and paleontological studies at Princeton in the mid- to late 19th century, there were no formally discrete departments or sections in geosciences until the early 1880's when concentrations in "Physical Geography" and "Geological Paleontology" were introduced.