Thomas Jaggar — Scientific Missionary

(1871 - 1953)

Thomas Jaggar Japan volcano

Sent to the Caribbean in 1902 after Mount Pelée exploded, killing more than 26,000 people, Jaggar was shocked by what he found.  The science of volcanoes was in its infancy, and the possibility that a single blast could sweep away an entire city was unknown.  Seeing the terrible destruction and realizing the horrible deaths the victims had suffered, Jaggar vowed to dedicate himself to a study of volcanoes because, as he later told a colleague, "It was a missionary field, for in it people are being killed."

Thomas Jaggar in Japan, 1914

Kilauea volcano lava lake 1916

Lava lake at Kilauea, 1916.

Then followed 50 years of travel to eruptions in Italy, Alaska, Central America, Japan and the Pacific.  He settled at Kilauea volcano where he built a small science station at the edge of a lake of molten lava, solving the mystery of why volcanoes erupt and how they could be predicted.  From here, he also learned how to predict tsunamis, sending out the first warning ever of an approaching wave.  His obsessions, however, came at a price.  It ended his marriage and he was forced to give up his children.  He seemed destined for a unheralded life as a scientific vagabond when a dramatic eruption and meeting a woman changed everything.

Isabel Jaggar lava flow

Isabel Maydwell Jaggar standing on an active lava flow, 1936.

She was Isabel Maydwell, a widowed schoolteacher from California who had come to the Hawaiian Islands to start a new life.  She found it at Kilauea volcano.  She and Jaggar shared the work of the science station, living in a small house at the edge of a high cliff that looked toward the lava lake, Maydwell becoming one of the world's most astute observers of volcanic activity.

Thomas Jaggar Museum

In 1987 a museum located at the summit of Kilauea volcano was dedicated to Thomas Jaggar.

The museum permanently closed on May 11, 2018 because of the explosive eruption and damage to the museum building.

Thomas Jaggar museum
Thomas Jaggar museum overlook

A famous view from the overlook at the Jaggar Museum.

Daytime view Kilauea lava lake

Daytime view of the lava lake at the summit of Kilauea in 2015.

Nighttime view of the lava lake at the summit of Kilauea in 2015.

Nighttime view Kilauea lava lake

Silhouettes of Thomas Jaggar and his two children.  (taken from The Last Volcano)