Home > Awards > George Gaylord Simpson

George Gaylord Simpson

To my generation (now retiring), George Gaylord Simpson was an Olympian figure, potent but remote.
His intellectual descent stemmed from both Marsh and Cope. With Richard Swann Lull as his Yale mentor, he monographed Marsh's magnificent Mesozoic mammals from Como Bluff and elsewhere. A year later he produced a companion monograph of the British Mesozoic Mammalia. That convinced Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the American Museum, to secure his services as an assistant curator, bringing him under the influences of W.D. Matthew, W.K. Gregory, and the newly acquired Cope Collection.

Throughout his career, Simpson unswervingly sought to illuminate the beginning of the age of mammals. His contributions in North America and Asia were fundamental, but his pursuit of this subject in South America was Herculean. He led the Scarritt Expeditions into Patagonia, extending the work of the brothers Ameghino, and thereby established that on that isolated continent several mysterious suites of native orders had evolved convergently with "normal" mammals on other continents.

But Simpson pursued his science across many major disciplines. Having recognized that the rich fossil record of mammals would provide a sound basis for their classification, he produced a massive classification replete with fantastic footnotes and philosophical explanations. This was somehow completed during the Second World War while he served in North Africa. (On their return through Italy, General Patton, noticing Simpson's goatee, ordered him to shave it off. Simpson politely but firmly refused, stating that he was not in Patton's unit, but worked instead for Intelligence.) Of all his brilliant endeavors, Simpson's most fertile were probably his contributions to the modern evolutionary synthesis. There was a special synergism among the three men we credit with the synthesis: Theodosius Dobzhansky, the geneticist; Ernst Mayr, the speciationist; and George Simpson, the paleontologist.

Simpson's vibrant style shined through his writings, on all kinds of subjects. Stephen Jay Gould, another great paleontologist and evolutionist whom we miss, commented more than once how he, Gould, avidly studied the elegance and cadence of his hero, Simpson. Perhaps because he came to Yale intending to be a poet, Simpson never failed to produce powerful, popular accounts of his work. His autobiography and many of his evolutionary writings are simply wonderful literature. Take for example this excerpt from "Attending Marvels," recounting his early work in Patagonia:

"The fossil hunter does not kill; he resurrects. And the result of his sport is to add to the sum of human pleasure and to the treasures of human knowledge." (1965, p. 82).

In 1978 I had the honor of presiding over the SVP meeting in Pittsburgh. At that time our society had determined to institute a new award — a medal, representing the society's highest honor, to be presented each year to the person who had made the largest, most persistent contributions to the SVP. There was an undercurrent of discussion among the society's leaders as to what name to give that new medal. Some of us advocated Simpson, but an equally solid groundswell favored Romer. At that same meeting, a charter member of the society passed me a unique old photo showing the society's organizational meeting at Harvard in 1941. There were two distinguished VP'ers at the front desk, presiding over that inaugural meeting. Yep! They were Al Romer and George Simpson. How fortunate we are to have two such remarkable founders.

S. David Webb
Distinguished Research Curator Emeritus
Florida Museum of Natural History
University of Florida, Gainesville