Edwin Harris Colbert
Dr. Edwin H. 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 museum, Colbert organized its dinosaur displays. As curator of reptile fossils, he spent much of his time doing scientific research, preparing fossil specimens for the public and organizing exhibitions.
But 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.
“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 Colbert 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, Colbert 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, an early relative of mammals. Similar fossils had previously been found in South Africa. 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 mass or supercontinent that slowly separated over millions of years.
The continental drift theory, originally proposed in 1912 by Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist, had long been debated by scientists, but the discovery was a crucial piece of evidence. 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.”
Colbert’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. It was one of the largest concentrations of dinosaur deposits ever recorded.
Colbert 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. He was a friend of Henry Fairfield Osborn, and a foremost authority on the Dinosauria. He described dozens of new taxa and authored major systematic reviews, including the discovery and description of the small Triassic dinosaur Coleophysis at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, and a review of ceratopsian phylogeny. He also discovered what later was named and classified as Effigia okeeffeae.
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, Colbert became the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Northern Arizona.
Colbert passed away on November 16, 2001 at the age of 96.