Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Parícutin: The Birth of a Volcano

Parícutin: The Birth of a Volcano

[Black and white image of a light-skinned man with short hair and a stubbly beard and mustache. He is wearing a collared, dark shirt.]

William F. Foshag was a prominent Smithsonian scientist who documented Parícutin volcano, from its birth to extinction.

[Video of William Foshag in a white, wide-brimmed hat, operating a camera on a tripod in front of a large, cone-shaped volcano that has ash coming out the top. The scene switches to a small group of men around a campfire. The scene switches to video of Foshag in his white hat approaching the bottom of the volcano with a large stick shaped like a hockey stick. He uses it to push a rock away from the volcano as other steaming rocks tumble down the volcano's side.

The video switches to one of Foshag patting the top of a rock with his stick, then bending down to use the rock to light a cigarette in his mouth. He puffs on the cigarette and smiles.]

Parícutin, the famous volcano that grew out of a Mexican cornfield, erupted from 1943 to 1952.

[Image of an ash cloud rising from some low hills hear the horizon, at the end of a view across some fields with a few trees in them. The scene changes to video of a dark gray ash cloud rising from behind a stand of trees at the edge of a cornfield. The scene changes again to video of an ash cloud rising from what is now a large hill. Three people are watching it with their backs to the camera.

The scene changes to video of a large, wide hill with a crater at its top, with an ash plume rising like smoke from the crater. The scene changes again to aerial video of the ash plume coming out of the crater.

The scene changes to video taken from the base of the volcano, which is now a cone shape with a crater at the top, and ash is billowing out of the crater.]

It grew over 305 meters in its first year and prevailing winds distributed ash as far away as Mexico City, some 300 kilometers eastward.

[Video of the volcano spewing ash, seen from a distance.]

Nearby villages were blanketed with the ash for months, and many had to abandon their homes forever. 

[Video of a person walking in front of some mountains and trees, with poor visibility due to ash blowing like a dust storm. Scene changes to a close-up video of a person in a white hat walking through the ash-fog. The person walks to a place with a few buildings. The scene changes to a video of a person pushing ash off the roof of a building. Then video of someone using a broom to sweep ash off of a roof. Then video of an arched doorway with two large doors, and ash piled up in front of the doors and going through one which is partially open.]

On the fifth day of the eruption, lava began to flow over cornfields prepared for planting and continued well beyond the volcano.

[Image of the volcano with black ash coming out the top, and smoke rising in front of its base and farther out. The scene switches to an aerial view of one side of the volcano, with two lava flows labeled next to it.

The scene changes to several clips of orange-black lava flowing slowly. One close up shows a large mass of lava flowing over a field. Another appears to be an aerial view showing the wide extent of the flow.]

The advancing lava destroyed everything within reach, most notably the Church of San Juan Parangaricutiro 4 1/2 kilometers away.

[Image of the volcano in the distance, still spewing ash, and dozens of buildings in the foreground. Scene changes to another view of the volcano in the distance, with an ash cloud rising from its top.

The scene changes to an aerial view of a church and then a close-up view from the ground, showing the damage and the lava surrounding it halfway up its walls.]

William Foshag spent several years studying Parícutin. His field research and collections are still used today.

[Image of William Foshag in a lab setting, looking into a microscope. Image fades into a color illustration of the volcano, with fire and black ash coming out of it.]

Film footage: Fred Bullard, Fred Pough

Photographs: William F. Foshag, Luis Mora-Garcia

Illustration: Gerardo "Dr. Atl" Murillo


100 Years National Museum of Natural History

Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism Program

In 1943, a volcano emerged out of a cornfield in Mexico. Smithsonian scientist William Foshag spent more than two years on-site studying its growth, and he took video and many photos in the process. His field work and collections are still used today.

Smithsonian Institution video. (This video is silent.)

Related Resources

Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Grade Level
Earth Science