Edwin H. and Margaret M. Colbert

Theropod trackway, Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite, Wyoming, photo credit: Thomas Holtz

Edwin H. and Margaret M. Colbert

Margaret Matthew Colbert

Margaret Matthew Colbert was a prolific painter, illustrator, and sculptor who created paleoart that influenced both scientific and public perceptions of extinct animals throughout her career.

Margaret’s father was paleontologist William Diller Matthew, who served as curator at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) from the mid-1890s until 1927. Margaret eagerly accompanied her father to the museum on Saturdays as a child, and when she graduated from art school in 1931, her mother only needed to call the AMNH to secure her employment as a “bone artist.” Margaret travelled by bus from her home in Berkeley and began work the same day she arrived.

Margaret’s “bone artist” career did not last long, however. She met Edwin (Ned) Colbert while they worked together at the AMNH and they got married in 1933. Ned had received a promotion the same year and did not want Margaret to continue to work while she was married. Though she missed creating art, working with colleagues, and earning a salary, she had to adapt to her new life in the domestic sphere. Margaret and Ned had five sons together, and so her artistic career was effectively halted during the 1930s. She worked where she could, illustrating books and teaching art classes, but this was especially difficult in the long summers when Ned was away on field work.

As Margaret’s sons grew older, her career as a paleoartist flourished. She conducted freelance illustration as a scientific illustrator and was commissioned to create dynamic paleoart and reconstructions to interest the public. Her most notable work is perhaps the reconstruction of Lystrosaurus, the dicyonodont that had been found on every continent and which strengthened the theory of continental drift.

Margaret painted several large-scale murals depicting prehistoric ecosystems are still on display at several museums, including the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, the Rainbow Forest Museum, and the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology. These murals interpreted exhaustive research of flora, fauna, and paleoclimate of the fossil sites they depicted, and inspired many more murals to come.

In 1942, Margaret designed the logo for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology that is still in use today, depicting a Marsh pick and Eryops vertebral column. In 1993 she received an award recognizing “Her Artistic Gifts and Her Design of the Emblem of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.”

The Colberts moved to Flagtstaff, Arizona, in 1969, a place they were both familiar with through field work and had visited extensively. Here, Margaret was able to set up a proper painting studio for the first time, and she experienced the most productive years of her artistic career.

Margaret Matthew Colbert passed away on February 24, 2007, at the age of 96.

Brigid Christison


Edwin Harris Colbert

Dr. Edwin H. (Ned) Colbert was an authority on paleontology and helped popularize the study of dinosaurs through his work as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and as a prolific writer of dinosaur books for a lay audience.

In his 40-year career at the American Museum as curator of reptile fossils, Ned spent much of his time doing scientific research, preparing fossil specimens for the public and organizing its dinosaur exhibitions.

He also found time to write extensively, publishing several heavily-illustrated dinosaur books that won him acclaim from both the public and scientists. His first book, “The Dinosaur Book: The Ruling Reptiles and Their Relatives” (1945), helped to feed a growing public interest in dinosaurs in the mid-40’s and was so popular that it remained in print for two decades. Ned wrote more than 400 scientific articles and more than 20 books. In addition to his long-selling “Dinosaur Book,” he wrote “Colbert’s Evolution of the Vertebrates: A History of the Backboned Animals Through Time” (Wiley-Liss, 2001), which is considered a classic textbook on evolutionary biology and paleontology and is now in its fifth edition.

“Through his writings, he aroused public interest in dinosaurs because he was able to write in an entertaining manner and still make it scientifically accurate,” said Dr. Gene Gaffney, who succeeded Ned as curator of fossil reptiles at the museum. “He was known for writing the first popular books on dinosaurs, and really gave a human side to paleontology, and made the science more approachable.”

In 1969, just before retiring from the museum, Ned traveled to Antarctica as part of a field expedition sponsored by the National Science Foundation. While there, he was part of a team that discovered and identified a 220-million-year-old fossil of a Lystrosaurus, Cynognathus and Thrinaxodon – all early relatives of mammals. Similar fossils had previously been found in South Africa, India or South America. Since Lystrosaurus was not a swimmer, the discovery lent evidence to the theory that the present-day continents must have once been part of a large land masses or supercontinents, such as Gondwana and Pangea, that slowly separated over millions of years.

These vertebrate fossils provided evidence for the theory of plate tectonics and that the southern continents were together so that they would share a common terrestrial fauna. Dr. Laurence M. Gould, the scientific leader of Adm. Richard E. Byrd’s first expedition to Antarctica, in 1928, described the discovery in an article in The New York Times as “one of the truly great fossil finds of all time.”

Ned’s field studies in paleontology took him to all seven continents, but he preferred excavations in the southwestern United States. In 1947, while at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, he unearthed more than a dozen complete skeletons of a primitive dinosaur, Coelophysis and published a description of this small Triassic dinosaur. The Ghost Ranch quarry was one of the largest concentrations of dinosaur deposits ever recorded.

He received his AB from the University of Nebraska and his Masters and PhD from Columbia University. Among the positions he held was Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History and Professor Emeritus of Vertebrate Paleontology at Columbia University.

After retiring from the museum in 1970, Ned became the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Ned Colbert passed away on November 16, 2001 at the age of 96.

Author Unknown