Edwin Harris Colbert

Edwin Harris Colbert (September 28, 1905 – November 15, 2001), known as “Ned” to his friends and colleagues, was a distinguished American Paleontologist. He helped popularize the study of dinosaurs through his prolific research, writings, and 40 years of work as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Colbert was born in Clarinda, Iowa, but moved to Maryville, Missouri during infancy. Like many young children, and most of his predecessors and contemporaries, he collected fossils and arrowheads, starting his own “museum” of sorts. However, his initial career choice was not in paleontology, but rather the Forest Service. After spending multiple summers with the services in the Colorado Mountains, and surviving a few scares in the wilderness, his love for fossils won out. He studied for a few years in Maryville, but eventually moved on to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln to study paleontology. After graduating with his Bachelor of Arts he continued with his Masters at Columbia University.

During his time at Columbia, he began working at the American Museum of Natural History, and by 1930 he became Henry Fairfield Osborn’s scientific assistant. It was also at the museum where he met Margaret Matthew, a paleontologist’s daughter, who was an excellent artist and sculptor who specialized in visualizing extinct species. The two married in 1933, and would later have five sons together. In 1935, Colbert received his Ph.D. from Columbia and was awarded the Daniel Giraud Eliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences for his work “Siwalik Mammals in the American Museum of Natural History”.

In 1937, Cobert and his family moved to Leonia, New Jersey. Career fulfillment was somewhat slow, and he supplemented his modest salary from the American Museum of Natural History by working part time for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. It was during this time that he began his writing, publishing his first book in 1945. “The Dinosaur Book: The Ruling Reptiles and their Relatives” assisted in increasing public interest in dinosaurs, so much so that it remained in print for twenty years.

In 1947, Colbert and some colleagues were heading to the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona when they stopped at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, intending to stay for just a few days. The men stumbled upon a few bone fragments, which Colbert immediately identified as the base of a claw of the Triassic dinosaur, Coelophysis. With this find, the men cancelled their plans for Arizona and stayed in New Mexico for the rest of the summer, unearthing more than a dozen complete Coelophysis skeletons. This was one of the largest concentrations of dinosaur deposits ever recorded.

Colbert’s continuing field studies took him all over the world. In the 1950’s, he traveled to Brazil. In his travels to South Africa and India, he uncovered remains of the Triassic herbivore Lystrosaurus. In 1969, just before retiring, he traveled to Antarctica as part of a National Science Foundation sponsored field expedition. It was here he would encounter the Lystrosaurus once more –220-million-year-old fossil remains. The Lystrosaurus was bulky, boxy, and decidedly not a swimmer, yet Colbert had excavated its remains on three different continents.This find would virtually prove the continental drift theory, proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912 – that the continents had drifted over time.

After this great discovery, Colbert retired from the American Museum of Natural History in 1970 and headed to the South, which he’d always preferred. He accepted a position as curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Northern Arizona. During his lifetime he wrote more than 400 scientific articles and 20 books, one of which was ”Colbert’s Evolution of the Vertebrates: A History of the Backboned Animals Through Time’ which is still used as a textbook today. Colbert lived to the age of 96 and passed away in 2001 at home in Flagstaff, Arizona.