Romer, Alfred Sherwood
ROMER, ALFRED SHERWOOD
(b. White Plains, New York, 28 December 1894; d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 5 November 1973)
paleontology, vertebrate anatomy.
Romer was the son of Fenry Romer, a newspaper editor and owner, and of Evelyn Sherwood. A scholarship, unsupplemented by any contribution from his family, enabled Romer to get a higher education at Amherst College (1913–1917). Even though he had become fascinated by exhibits of dinosaurs and other fossil vertebrates during frequent visits to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, he majored in history and German literature. However, when, after serving in the U.S. Army for two years, he entered graduate school at Columbia University in 1919, he switched to zoology and became a student of William K. Gregory, an outstanding comparative anatomist (particularly of mammals) and evolutionist. This was the golden age of zoology at Columbia, with other famous teachers—Thomas Hunt Morgan and Edmund B. Wilson—and a brilliant group of graduate students. Romer received his doctorate in 1921 and, after two years teaching anatomy at New York University, he went to Chicago as associate professor in 1923. There he stayed for eleven years. The university’s Walker Museum had a splendid collection of Permian tetrapod fossils, to which Romer devoted thirty-seven publications. Indeed, he frequently did field-work in the Permian sediments of Texas and New Mexico. He summarized his years of experience in a detailed account of the Permian stratigraphy of Texas.
In 1934 Romer moved to Harvard, where he became professor of zoology and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. After the death of Thomas Barbour, Romer succeeded him in 1946 as director of the museum, a position from which he retired in 1961. During the last decade of his life Romer organized and conducted a series of expeditions to the Triassic beds of Argentina, where he made major discoveries of fossil reptiles.
Romer married Ruth Hibbard in September 1924. They had three children: Sally, Robert, and James.
Romer’s research objectives were in the tradition of classical comparative anatomy and phylogeny, as cultivated by Gregory’s school. His chief interest was the reconstruction of vertebrate phytlogeny from the lungfishes to the mammals, particularly of the primitive and intermediate amphibians and reptiles. This required a careful determination of homologies in order to be able to infer the ancestors of derived lineages. Romer clarified the taxonomic positions of numerous groups of reptiles in two outstanding monographs, Review of the Pelycosauria (1940), with L. I. Price, and Review of the Lahyrinthodontia (1947). His profound knowledge was summarized in The Osteology of the Reptiles (1956). His principal innovation was a reorganization of the classification of the fossil amphibians. In his textbooks Romer introduced a simplified classification of the vertebrates in which he consolidated the widely scattered literature, and placed in a definite position (or in synonymy) large numbers of problematic genera and families. In addition he published more than 200 papers. His studies of Permian and Triassic fossils had made Romer a champion of transatlantic continental connections long before the theory of plate tectonics. He rarely theorized, but he did champion two major ideas. One, the freshwater origin of the vertebrates, is no longer widely accepted. The other, that the vertebrates, as descendants of an ascidian-like ancestor, have a dual nature, consisting of a somatic and a visceral component, is still under discussion. He also published ideas on the origin of the amniote egg and demonstrated the capriciousness of so-called evolutionary trends.
In none of his other activities was Romer as successful as in teaching. With his warm humor and lively presentation, he could spellbind any audience, even on the seemingly driest subjects. Not surprisingly, he was greatly in demand as a lecturer. His educational genius was also displayed in his textbooks: Man and the Vertebrates (1933), Vertebrate Paleontology (1933), and The Vertebrate Body (1949). For many decades (and through many editions) they were the most widely used textbooks in their respective fields. More popular were The Vertebrate Story (1959) and The Procession of Life (1968).
During his Harvard years Romer trained an outstanding cadre of vertebrate paleontologists, anatomists, and vertebrate zoologists who took up positions in universities and museums in the United States and abroad.
I. Original Works. Man and the Vertebrates (Chicago, 1933); Vertebrate Paleontology (Chicago, 1933; 3rd ed., 1966); The Vertebrate Body (Philadelphia, 1949; 4th ed., 1970); Osteology of the Reptiles (Chicago, 1956); Bibliography of Fossil Vertebrates Exclusive of North America, 1507–1927, 2 vols. (New York, 1962), written with Nelda E. Wright, Tilly Edinger, and Richard van Frank; Notes and Comments on Vertebrate Paleontology (Chicago, 1968); and The Procession of Life (Cleveland, Ohio, 1968).
II. Secondary Literature. Edwin H. Colbert, “Alfred Sherwood Romer”, in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 53 (1982), 264–294, with complete bibliography; and G. E. Erickson, “Alfred Sherwood Romer 1894–1973,” in Anatomical Record, 189 (1977), 314–324.