Geologist. Lieber was born on September 8, 1830, in Boston, Massachusetts, the eldest son of the distinguished political scientist Francis Lieber and Matilda Oppenheimer. His father joined the faculty of South Carolina College in 1835, and the family moved to Columbia.
In 1839 Lieber traveled to Germany, where he stayed with relatives in Hamburg and attended private schools for six years before returning to Columbia. In 1846, at age sixteen, Lieber assisted Michael Tuomey on the South Carolina geological survey, and he credited Tuomey with fostering his interest in geology as a profession. Lieber returned to Germany the following year and studied at universities in Berlin and Göttingen and at the School of Mines in Freiburg. Returning to the United States in 1850, Lieber served a short time as assistant to the state geologist of Mississippi and Alabama. With the assistance of his father, Lieber published an analytical guidebook, The Assayer’s Guide (1852), which went through numerous editions. Unable to obtain academic employment that he felt suited his German scientific training, Lieber accepted a position as assistant to Michael Tuomey working on a geological survey of Alabama from 1854 to 1855.
Lieber severed his association with Tuomey over perceived charges of plagiarism and turned his attention toward promoting (using the pen name “Metallicus”) a new survey of South Carolina. Renewed interest in mining and internal improvements prompted the General Assembly in December 1855 to issue a resolution authorizing a four-year study and electing Lieber “Geological, Mineralogical and Agricultural Surveyor” of the state. Four annual reports were published between 1857 and 1860 before appropriations were discontinued by the legislature. These reports, each titled Report on the Survey of South Carolina, were marked by his German scientific style of writing on theoretical applications of geologic studies and detailed mine examinations. Lieber focused his investigations on mining areas in the upstate. However, the state-sponsored survey failed to meet the legislative intent in relation to internal improvements as the mining industry of upstate South Carolina remained moribund. Lieber’s reports were unique among antebellum state geological surveys and represent a style not favored by other American geologists of the period.
As detailed by the historian James O. Breeden, Lieber struggled to meet his father’s expectations academically, professionally, and by 1860 politically. Lieber proved his independence by siding with the Confederacy while his brothers and father served the Union. Soon after receiving his commission as a private, Lieber was mortally wounded during the Confederate retreat at the Battle of Williamsburg, Virginia, and he died on May 27, 1862. He was buried in Richmond.
Breeden, James O. “Oscar Lieber: Southern Scientist, Southern Patriot.” Civil War History 36 (September 1990): 226–49.
Millbrooke, Anne. “South Carolina State Geological Surveys of the Nineteenth Century.” In The Geological Sciences in the Antebellum South, edited by James X. Corgan. University: University of Alabama Press, 1982.
Tuomey, Michael. The Papers of Michael Tuomey. Edited by Lewis S. Dean. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 2001.