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2006 Honorary Membership Award Recipients


S. David Webb
S David Webb
Photo courtesy of S. David Webb.

Dave was imprinted early by motorcycle forays into the Mojave Desert with his rockhound dad. In high school his love of desert geology was reinforced by the late Ray Alf's fossil trips. Ray inspired many students at Webb School, a preparatory institution founded by Dave's great uncle. One October morning when Ray's troops were combing Red Rock Canyon, Dave's encounter with a Merychippus maxillary produced in him a profound epiphany. Burning questions arose: "What did these teeth masticate?"; "How long did this animal live?"; "Why did it die?"; "Where is the rest of it?"; "Why did it have three toes?"; "Are we sure it really had three toes?". That desert day witnessed the birth of a paleobiologist.

For another decade, however, that destiny lay latent. The heady intellectual air of Cornell University led our young scientist to believe that the highest calling was nuclear physics. Even when courses in Geology and Evolution seemed more enthralling than math and physics, the myth persisted. Then, as fate would have it, R.A. Stirton dropped into Ithaca and gave an exhilirating account of the Berkeley team's work in the Tertiary of Australia, replete with an Oligocene koala from the "Red Center." What really got Dave was Stirt's blood-curdling imitation of a dingo call. The moral here is that one's career choices ought to follow one's heart not one's head. And so off to Berkeley with a major in Zoology and a minor in Geology.

Living in Berkeley, newly married, with a NSF fellowship, our California pilgrim was very comfortable, despite minor guilt pangs over Congress' and his draft board's apparent belief that his scientific endeavors would help the U.S. beat the Russians to the moon. The faculty were fabulous. The most cosmopolitan course was surely Charles Camp's "History of Paleontology." Equally stimulating was the extraordinarily productive group of fellow grad students.

The next summer Dave hired on at the Yale Peabody Museum as curatorial assistant to Joe Gregory. A year later Joe came to Berkeley where he became the first of three successive graduate supervisors. The next two were Don Savage and R.A. Stirton. It was Stirt who sensed that Dave's primary interests were paleobiological and wisely steered Dave to the rich late Miocene faunas of Cherry County, Nebraska. While that dissertation was gestating, Dave's son, Alex, was born in the Cherry County Hospital, just in time to scurry west for the fall semester.

In 1964 academic jobs were relatively plentiful. After considering Fairbanks, Seattle and Boston, Dave signed on in Gainesville, Florida. That turned out to be an excellent growth opportunity. Clayton Ray, who had just moved on to the Smithsonian, helped immensely, pointing out the major field opportunities. It was exciting to begin filling regional gaps in the early Hemphillian, late Blancan and early Irvingtonian, including underwater excavations. It was astonishing to a westerner to realize that subtle and even non-existent outcrops could yield magnificent mammalian morphology. While developing several rich Florida faunas the curious prevalence of edentates intensified Dave's interest in what he called "the Great American Interchange." Meanwhile the success of Florida field work showed him the need to balance input from field work with output from publications. One solution was a book titled "Pleistocene Mammals of Florida" into which Dave and his students funneled much of their primary research.

That was also the year that Dave received a Guggenheim Fellowship which, combined with a NSF grant and a sabbatical year, provided a broadening year of museum-hopping in western Europe. And two years later Yale beckoned with a visiting professorship. That second affiliation with "Mother Yale" was just as rewarding as the first. Among many highlights Dave recalls serving with John Ostrom as a vintner in one of Yale's colleges. Other long visitations in those middle years included the Field Museum and the Quaternary Research Center in Seattle. Another assignment combining science and geopolitics was to lead the U.S. delegation to the International Quaternary Association's meeting in Beijing. The year was 1991, two years after the Tieneman Square incident. Thanks to behind-the-scenes labors of many scientists in many national academies, the freedom of scientific inquiry and exchange triumphed over politics.

The greatest honor in Dave's professional career came as a most improbable byproduct of his work on the Great American Interchange. George Gaylord Simpson, his lifelong hero, inquired if the Florida Museum would be interested in his scientific library. The University of Florida, it seemed, was not so well-endowed with library resources as many universities, yet it gave signs of maintaining a long-term commitment to research in areas conformable with the corpus of GGS' work. Dave then joined the board of the SIMROE Foundation and met with them every year until GGS' death. He was then called by Anne Roe to attend the memorial service and to transport the library east. The Simpson Library continues to grow and occupies a place of pride in the research program of the Florida Museum

Other joys of Dave's work have included collaborations with students and colleagues on a wide array of paleobiological projects. Increasingly, the best studies required multiple years and multiple collaborators. At Leisey Shell Pit, the richest Irvingtonian site in the world, hundreds of people from Tampa Bay carefully dug their squares under the supervision of the Florida Museum crew. The Love Bone Bed, from its humble beginning as an okra patch, took seven years to yield a major Clarendonian fauna. Most recently Dave's 20-year underwater project is finally being published as a multi-author book entitled "First Floridians and Last Mastodons." Another project that has to be mentioned is Dave Whistler's "goat camel." Some camels are said to be constructed by committees, but Capricamelus required two Daves. This camel collaboration took place at the Los Angeles County Museum where Dave Webb had published "The Osteology of Camelops" four decades earlier.

And then came retirement. Barbara and Dave both love western vistas, and Anaconda, Montana lies in the heart of some spectacular country halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier. Previous service to the SVP as Representative at large, as President, and with Bruce MacFadden, as the keeper of the central office when it resided in Gainesville, was no trouble. This award of Honorary Membership is deeply appreciated.