Dunbar, Carl Owen

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(b. Hallowell, Kansas, I January 1891; d. Dunedin Florida, 7 April 1979)

geology, paleontology.

Dunbar’s parents, David and Emma Thomas Dunbar, were wheat farmers. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1913 and received the Ph.D. from Yale University in 1917. On 18 September 1914 he married Lora Beamer; they had a son and a daughter,

Dunbar was closely associated with Charles Schuchert at Yale and did his doctoral work under him, studying the Devonian rocks and fossils of western Tennessee. In 1917 and 1918 he held a Dana resident fellowship that enabled him to prepare his dissertation for publication. He spent the summer of 1918 with Schuchert in Newfoundland. Their geological investigations and determinations of fossils, made during a number of field seasons, were published as the first memoir of the Geological Society of America (1934).

After teaching for two years (1918–1920) at the University of Minnesota, Dunbar returned to New Haven and remained at Yale for the rest of his career, succeeding Schuchert as professor of paleontology and stratigraphy in 1930. Because he did not believe in sabbaticals, Dunbar taught for thirtynine consecutive years until his retirement in 1959, He trained many of the leading twentieth-century American stratigraphers and paleontologists. Probably his greatest single contribution lay in his teaching abilities. Through his students and his textbooks, Dunbar’s influence spread far beyond Yale. He published more than a hundred scientific articles.

Dunbar contributed to the third revision of Louis Pirssonand Schuchert’s Textbook of Geology. Dunbar and Schuchert’s Historical Geology was the main text used in the second course in geology throughout most of the United States, going through numerous printings and a major revision in 1941, It was rewritten by Dunbar in 1949 and in 1960. In 1969 he and Karl Waage modified it further. In 1966 Dunbar wrote a popular work on geology, The Earth.

For many years Dunbar maintained a series of paleogeographic maps that he had inherited from Schuchert and kept revising as new data appeared. In 1955, twenty-three years after Schuchert’s death, the latest revisions were published under his name with an introduction by Dunbar, As chairman of the Committee on Stratigraphy of the National Research Council (1934–1953), Dunbar was charged with preparing a series of charts correlating the formations of the continent deposited during each geologic period. He was also chairman of the subcommittee that prepared the Permian chart and was an active member of three other subcommittees. The charts, published by the Geological Society of America in its Bulletin (1941–1960), remain fundamental references.

In addition to being a member of the geology faculty, Dunbar was appointed assistant curator of the Peabody Museum at Yale in 1920. His first task was to pack up the collections prior to demolition of the old building. Dunbar reinstalled the collections in the new building in 1925 and the following year was promoted to curator. In 1942, in addition to his teaching, he became director of the Peabody Museum, a post he held for seventeen years. He initiated a major revision of the exhibits, rapidly bringing the Peabody to the fore as one of the principal public natural history museums in the United States, Under him the museum and its facilities were used as a teaching adjunct to the university.

Dunbar is also well known for his work in invertebrate paleontology. The monograph by Dunbar and G. E. Condra, state geologist of Nebraska, on the Pennsylvanian brachiopods of Nebraska (1932) was written almost entirely by Dunbar. He later wrote a monograph on Permian brachiopods of Greenland (1955). His first major work with Condra was a study of Pennsylvanian fusulines of Nebraska (1927). The fusulines are an extinct group of relatively large microfossils—fusiform and commonly one to two centimeters long: they are extremely abundant locally in Pennsylvanian and Permian strata. They are a group that evolved rapidly and, accordingly. are extremely useful for detailed correlation. Dunbar wrote the early major papers on these fossils in the United States and continued to study them for nearly half a century.

Dunbar was one of the twenty civilian scientists selected to observe the atomic bomb test at Bikini atoll during Operation Crossroads in 1946. Dunbar was treasurer of the Paleontological Society from 1923 to 1937 and an associate editor of the Journal of Paleontology from 1931 to 1938. In 1941) he was elected president of the Paleontological Society; he also served another stint as treasurer from 1945 to 1946.

Dunbar received numerous honors, including membership in the National Acadeym of Sciences (1944), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1950), and the American Philosophical Society (1942), In 1959 he was awarded the Hayden Medal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and in 1967 he was the fourth recipient of the Paleontological Society Medal. In 1978 he was honored with the William H. Twenhofel Award of the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, named for his mentor at the University of Kansas.

Dunbar was the preeminent student of the historical geology of North American sedimentary rocks. He was probably the last American geologist to have a complete grasp of what were the positions of land and sea, and environments of deposition of the rock strata, in the country over the past 500 million years. Like Schuchert before him, and nearly all paleontologists and stratigraphers of his time, Dunbar accumulated and organized his sense of geology both as a derivation from and a support for a geology of permanent continents and ocean basins. The work of others influenced more strongly by structural contributions, such as Hans Stille and Marshall Kay, or those like Emile Argand who accepted the idea of continental drift, was readily modified to the new concept of mobilist geology that came to the fore during Dunbar’s last years. Of the theoretical framework of vanished borderlands and intercontinental bridges that was so carefully constructed by Schuchert and Dunbar and nourished mainstream geology in North America for the first two-thirds of the century, little or nothing remains.


I. Original Works. Among Dunbar’s writings are “The Fusilinidae of the Pennsylvanian System in Nebraska,” in Nebraska Geological Survey Bulletin. 2 , 1927, written with G. E Condra: “Brachiopoda of the Pennsylvanian System in Nebraska,” ibid., 5 (1932), written with G. E. Condra; “Correlation Charts Prepared by the Committee on Stratigraphy of the National Research Council,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America. 53 (1942). 429–434. with others; Historical Geology (New York, 1949: 2nd ed. 1960; 3rd ed., 1969). 3rd ed. written with Karl Waage; “Permian Brachiopod Faunas of Central East Greenland,” in Meddelelser om Gronland. 110 . no. 3 (1955), 1–169; Principles of Stratigraphy (New York, 1957), written with John Rodgers; “Correlation of the Permian Formations of North America,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America. 71 (1960). 1763–1800, with others; and The Earth (New York, 1966).

II. Secondary Literature. Obituaries include Preston Cloud, “Carl Owen Dunbar (1891–1979),” in American Philosophical Society. Year Book 1980 (1981), 561–567; J. Thomas Dutro. Jr., “Carl Owen Dunbar,” in Journal of Paleontology, 55 (1981) 695–697; John Rodgers, “Carl Owen Dunbar.” in Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Silences. 55 (1985), 215–245, with portrait and bibliography; and Karl M. Waage. “Memorial to Carl Owen Dunbar. 1891–1979,” in Geological Society of America, Memorials, 11 (1981).

Ellis L. Yochelson

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