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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.

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