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2010 Skinner Award Recipient

Thomas Bown

Thomas Brown

Raised in southern Iowa during the 1950s and early 1960s, I developed a love of the outdoors through hunting, fishing and camping with my father, brother John and my lifelong friend (now) the Rev. Steve Goughnour. My interest in antiquity was fostered by the discovery – when I was six – of an attic box of stone axe heads, pottery shards and projectile points acquired by my great-great-grandfather, judge and antiquarian John W. Freeland, between about 1880 and 1910. Among the relics was a handful of fossil trilobites and crinoids he'd collected from limestone quarries scattered around Iowa. My fledgling career in geology/paleontology was launched upon finding my own crystals of marcasite and fragments of fossil brachiopods in a load of fresh limestone gravel dumped on our home driveway. My father assigned me lessons from his 1939 collegiate edition of Textbook of Geology, by Longwell, Knopf, and Flint, and drove me around Iowa on weekends to hunt up my great-great-grandfather's old fossil localities.

At Iowa State University, I studied geology and ancient history, and continued collecting invertebrate fossils with now geology teacher/dark-sky astronomer Jack Troeger. Studies at the Iowa State geology camp near Shell, Wyoming, from 1965-68 sealed my interest in geology. The camp was managed by my geology advisor Carl Vondra, and I assisted his PhD student John Neasham in measuring a section of the Willwood Formation along Elk Creek in the summer of 1968. Vertebrate fossils were collected along that line of section by John Fleagle and Dennis Powers – both under the direction of Grant Meyer, and all working for Elwyn Simons at Yale. Carl was the geologist for Simons' ongoing north India expedition and, at the end of the summer of 1968, Grant hired me to work as a fossil collector in India.

After spending three months exploring Cairo while awaiting travel visas, John Fleagle, Ken Rose, (now) ornithologist Tony Gaston and I finally made it to India where, with Grant, Prithijit Chatrath and a large crew, we collected Miocene vertebrate fossils near Haritalyangar, in Himachal Pradesh. At the end of the Indian field work in July of 1969, Prithijit, Tony and I drove a Dodge Power Wagon from New Delhi to Naples, Italy, and ferried across to Libya, where we were to launch a new field venture at Dor al-Talha. Unfortunately, our arrival in Tripoli coincided with Qaddafi's revolution, and we were placed under house arrest for 10 days before BOAC flew all foreigners out. Returned to the U.S., I worked as a technician at the Yale Peabody Museum until 1973, collecting fossils in Wyoming, Spain and Iran with Grant, Prithijit and many students.

Glenn Conroy, Ken Rose and Malcolm McKenna finally persuaded me to enter graduate school and, in 1977, I received my PhD at the University of Wyoming under Drs. Paul McGrew and Jay Lillegraven. At Wyoming, USGS geologist Dave Love got me interested in the geology of the Absaroka Range, and I completed my National Research Council postdoctoral fellowship on middle Eocene mammals, volcanic stratigraphy and Plio-Pleistocene debris-avalanches in the southwest Bighorn Basin. In 1977, I was also hired by the USGS as their vertebrate paleontologist for the Central Region U.S., and worked in that capacity until the 1995 RIF, during which tenure I studied fossil vertebrate evolution, paleosols and continental trace fossils on numerous expeditions with Ken Rose (Wyoming), John Fleagle (Argentina, Ethiopia and Kenya), and Elwyn Simons (Egypt). While at the USGS, I also spent three one-month seasons analyzing stratigraphic occurrences of fresh groundwater in the United Arab Emirates with Don Hadley. I am currently a consulting geologist engaged principally with Gustav Winterfeld in environmental studies related to the development of oil and gas pipelines, transmission lines, wind farms, strip mines and land swaps.

I have been very fortunate in having numerous fascinating experiences in a career that has largely followed my own academic inclinations. I rank the accumulation of the largest single collection of lower Eocene mammals in the world (with Ken Rose), substantial additions to the Pinturas and Santa Cruz small mammal faunas of Argentina (with John Fleagle), the discovery of Fayum vertebrate localities L-41 and BQ-2, and the recognition (in the Sahara Desert) of the world's oldest cattle kraals (with CSU anthropologist Kim Nichols) to be my most lasting accomplishments. Most rewarding, however, has been a lifetime of field work all over the world, learning from old friends made at Yale and new ones drawn from their dozens of students and our joint colleagues. I am truly honored to receive this award and thank everyone for their support.

Photo courtesy of Kim Nichols.