James M. Safford was a geologist, chemist, and professor in Tennessee from 1848-1900. Originally, his highest qualification was training in the famous chemistry lab at Yale, but his fame is from geology. Safford was a professor at Cumberland University from 1848 to 1873. From 1873 to 1900 he was half-time professor of chemistry in the proprietary Medical School of the University of Nashville and Vanderbilt University. From 1875 to 1900 he was also half-time professor in the Academic Department of Vanderbilt University, where he taught geology and botany.
All of Safford’s fifty-four books, reports, and maps were about, or included, geology. His 1869 book Geology of Tennessee is still frequently cited. Much of his work applied geology to practical uses and was supported and published by Tennessee state agencies. He was state geologist from 1854 until retirement. For thirty years he served on the Board of Health, and he was a chemist for the Tennessee Bureau of Agriculture for several years in the 1870s and 1880s. Geological applications included topography and health, water supply, and soils as well as mineral resources. Safford and J. B. Killebrew published a voluminous report on the resources of Tennessee and later a textbook on geology of Tennessee that was used in high schools for over twenty-five years.
Safford was a lifelong Presbyterian. At Vanderbilt, while in the field, he led students in prayers to start each day. Students remarked on his kindly nature and tendency to punctuate lectures with bits of classical poetry.