Two Hands From Charles Darwin
The following tribute to Edwin H. Colbert was prepared
by Louis L. Jacobs, Ph.D. in connection with Dr. Colbert's
talk On Being a Giant, presented at Southern Methodist
University on November 14, 1994.
Dr. Colbert, the dean of vertebrate paleontologists the world
over, is Curator Emeritus of the American Museum of Natural
History, Professor Emeritus of Columbia University, and
Honorary Curator at the Museum of Northern Arizona. He has
been an honorary member of the Dallas Paleontological Society
for eight years.
Dr. Colbert's career has spanned most of this century, and
geographically it has spanned all of the continents. He is best
known for his work in Antarctica, which produced fossils
important for defining the roles of southern land masses in
continental drift, and for his voluminous research into the
workings of dinosaurs.
Dr. Colbert is an exacting scientist. Moreover, probably more
than anyone else in our lifetime, he is responsible for making
"dinosaur" a household word. Long before Jurassic Park, Ned
Colbert was writing for the public. He is a prodigious author
and his numerous popular works are aimed at audiences of all
ages. One of my favorite books is Men and Dinosaurs (reissued
as The Great Dinosaurs Hunters and their Discoveries). The reason
I like the book so much is that Colbert, in his friendly and warm
style, puts faces with discoveries. Indeed, it is his hallmark to
concern himself with the human side of paleontology. But in addition
to that, what is so intriguing about Colbert is that he was so very
close to so very many of the great paleontologists. His two
autobiographies, A Fossil Hunter's Notebook (1980) and Digging
into the Past (1989), are full of personal anecdotes about important
personalities in the field written by an equally important figure who
knew them personally.
In the early years of his career, Ned was a research assistant
to Henry Fairfield Osborn, the founder of the Department of
Vertebrate Paleontology and president of the American
Museum of Natural History in New York. Osborn had studied
in England under Thomas Henry Huxley, who became legendary
as Darwin's Bulldog, a strong and unyielding proponent of
evolution. In fact, Colbert states that Osborn was fond of relating
how one day, while he was with Huxley, Darwin came into the
room to join them.
Osborn was also a disciple of Edwin Drinker Cope, who along
with O.C. Marsh was one of the fathers of vertebrate paleontology
in this country. Cope and Marsh waged the most colorful feud in
paleontological history, each striving to out-compete the other in
the search for new species. Cope came twice to Texas and he
described many fossils from the Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous
of this state.
Cope also collected in the Cretaceous around Fort Worth. He even
described a new pycnodont fish. Moreover, Robert T. Hill, the father
of Texas geology, showed bones he discovered west of Fort Worth
to Cope, who identified them as dinosaurs -- the first known from Texas.
Ned Colbert himself has worked in Texas. In 1942, he and the great
Harvard paleontologist Alfred Sherwood Romer met in Dallas, then
took the bus to Glen Rose where they picked up the car that R.T. Bird
has used while he was collecting dinosaur footprints from the Paluxy
River. It was a rickety old car, but the intrepid fossil hunters drove
to the Texas Permian for their field work. Al Romer christened the car
Geraldine, after one of his favorite localities. The SMU specimen of the
herbivorous mammal-like reptile Edaphosaurus, now on display in the
Dallas Museum of Natural History, was collected by Romer from the
Geraldine Bone Bed and given by him to Ellis Shuler, for whom the
Shuler Museum of Paleontology is named. Back in New York, it was
Ned Colbert who was responsible for the inclusion of the Glen Rose
footprints in the famous dinosaur display at the American Museum.
There you have it. When you shake Ned Colbert's hand you are but
two hands away from Charles Darwin and his bulldog Huxley. When
you shake hands with Ned Colbert you are but two hands away from
Cope and but one hand away from Al Romer and R.T. Bird. Most
importantly, when you shake Ned Colbert's hand, you are shaking
the hand of a truly great paleontologist and a nice person.