2008 Honorary Membership Award Recipients

James A. Hopson
James A. Hopson
Photo courtesy of James A. Hopson.

I had the good fortune to be born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, where proximity to Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History stimulated my early interest in fossil vertebrates. Taking advantage of a scholarship from Yale, I decided to attend this conveniently nearby college, scarcely understanding the wonderful opportunity being offered me. An introductory geology course in my second year inspired me to major in geology and to combine it with my youthful interest in fossils. I approached Joseph T. Gregory, then the VP at Yale, who invited me to participate that summer in a dinosaur dig in Utah. In the fall, I took Joe's undergraduate VP course and the next year audited his year-long graduate course. As his bursary student assistant I worked in the vertebrate fossil collections, identifying and cataloguing specimens.

I chose to do graduate studies at the University of Chicago, where the paleozoology program of Everett C. (Ole) Olson offered the freedom remedy my deficiencies in biology. I came well prepared in classical VP, but Ole showed me that fossils also had much to say about macroevolutionary patterns. When an older graduate student dropped out, Ole offered me his thesis material. This was a collection of the tritylodontid Bienotherium, which had been collected in China in the late 1940s under the auspices of Father Harold Rigney, a former student of Ole's and, until the Communist takeover, rector of the Catholic University of Peking (Beijing). This windfall set the future direction of my research to "mammal-like reptiles" and the origin of mammals. My "real" life also changed for the better when I met my future wife, Sue, then an undergraduate at the University.

Yale came back into the picture in 1962, when new curators Elwyn Simons and John Ostrom asked me to take on an NSF-funded curatorial assistantship at Peabody Museum with duties to reorganize the vertebrate fossil collections. Sue and I spent the following five years in New Haven, where our two sons were born. In 1964, A. W. (Fuzz) Crompton joined the Museum as its new director, bringing with him from South Africa a wealth of therapsid material. These fossils gave me an exceptional education in therapsid morphology and greatly improved the PhD thesis that I submitted in 1965. I stayed at Yale for two more years as a research associate with Fuzz. The principal outcome of our research was a 1969 review of the origin of mammals, which argued for a monophyletic origin from a Morganucodon-like ancestor.

In 1967, Sue and I, with sons Andrew and Peter, moved back to the University of Chicago, where I began an assistant professorship in the Department of Anatomy (later to become Organismal Biology and Anatomy). I taught undergraduate chordate biology, first with David Wake and then, for 18 years, with Eric Lombard. I shared the graduate VP course with Ole, Len Radinsky and Leigh Van Valen, but after Ole left for UCLA I took over all of the non-mammalian vertebrates, which in later years I taught with John Bolt, Eric Lombard and Paul Sereno. In addition to my appointment in anatomy, I became a research associate at the Field Museum and a member of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology.

My research has centered on the morphology and phylogeny of therapsids and early mammals, with a few excursions into dinosaurs. I have greatly enjoyed my fruitful collaborations with colleagues such as Herb Barghusen, Edgar Allin and James Kitching, with postdoctoral fellows John Wible and Guillermo Rougier, and with former students Jim Clark and Chris Sidor. In addition, I wish to acknowledge the influence of Eric Lombard and John Bolt, as well as my other University of Chicago colleagues, on my development as a scientist and teacher over the past forty years.

Though officially retired since 2001, I am still actively involved with my fossils. Sue and I have made a new home in western Michigan, among forest and sand dunes, where we continue with our professional work, though at a less intense pace.

The SVP has played an important role in my professional life since I attended my first meeting at the American Museum in 1955. For more than 50 years I have watched the Society grow and prosper beyond anything I could have imagined then. I was honored to have served as president of the SVP in 1984. I am now honored to have been elected an Honorary Member of the Society.