Gregory, William King

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(b. New York City, 19 May 1876; d, Woodstock, New York, 29 December 1970)

vertebrate paleontology, comparative anatomy.

Gregory was the son of George Gregory and Jane King Gregory. His father was a printer who lived and worked in lower Manhattan, and there young William spent his boyhood, living with his parents in a small house, the front of which was occupied by his father’s shop. He attended St. Luke’s Primary School, for a short time a public school, and then Trinity School, where from 1894 to 1895 he took the science course to prepare for Columbia University. At Columbia he first studied in the School of Mines, but he soon shifted to Columbia College where he obtained his bachelor’s degree there in 1900. Gregory then earned his master’s degree there in 1905 and his Ph.D. in 1910. The five-year intervals between his degrees were due in part to the fact that while still an undergraduate he became scientific assistant to Henry Fairfield Osborn, the famous paleontologist who was first dean of the graduate faculty at Columbia and then for many years president of the American Museum of Natural History in 1944 and from Columbia University in 1945.

Gregory married Laura Grace Foote on 4 December 1899; she died in 1937. In 1938 he married Angela DuBois. There were no children.

Gregory was not a robust person, yet he enjoyed good health to such a degree that he lived well into his nineties. He was always active in his own way— that is attending to his multitudinous affairs — but he did not participate in any sports; his was a contemplative life. He lived for many years across the street from the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where he spent so many of his waking hours.

Although much of his work was in paleontology, a profession that commonly demands rigorous field trips to collect fossils, Gregory was not a field man. He made a few short visits to paleontological field parties in the western states, but his most serious field adventures were of a zoological nature. In 1921 and 1922 he went with Henry C. Raven, of the Museum of Natural History, to Australia to collect marsupials; in 1925 he participated in the Arcturus expedition, led by William Beebe, to collect and study marine life in the Sargasso Sea; and in 1929 and 1930 he went to Africa with Raven, James H. McGregor, and Earle T. Engel to study gorillas in their habitat and to collect specimens for study. On the whole, his adventures were in the laboratory and the library; he was a superb comparative anatomist and an outstanding student of vertebrate osteology and evolution.

During the first two decades of his scientific career, Gregory was research assistant to and collaborator with Osborn, who in 1910 turned his professorial duties over to Gregory. From then until his retirement. Gregory trained and was mentor to a host zoologists and paleontologists. About 1920 Gregory had become so outstanding and involved in his chosen fields that he could no longer devote time to Osborn’s projects; that work was taken over by others. Nevertheless, Gregory did work closely with zoologists and paleontologists, notably W.D. Matthew, Walter Granger, George Gaylord Simpson, Henry Raven and Milo Hellman.

Perhaps no other scientist of his time had such extensive knowledge of the vertebrates as did Gregory. He was a preeminent authority on fishes, both fossil and recent. He was noted for his work on lower tetrapods, notably fossil reptiles and especially mammal-like reptiles.

Although his studies of birds were limited, Gregory accomplished a formidable amount of research on both fossil and recent mammals. Indeed, his Ph. D. dissertation, “The Orders of Mammals,” has remained a standard reference on the relationships of all the mammals. He was a leading authority on the evolution of the marsupials.

Gregory’s interests developed along definite lines. He did important studies of origins—of the development of the tetrapod limb from the fin of crossopterygian fishes, for example—and he devoted years of work to evolutionary sequences. His studies on the series from fish to man were justly famous. Even more noted, perhaps, was his work on the evolution of primates, particularly his studies of the origins of human lines of evolution. In this connection Gregory was a leader in the study of mammalian dentition; one of his important books was on The Origin and Evolution of the Human Dentition (1922).

Gregory developed some important evolutionary concepts, such as that of “heritage and habitus” — the principle that all animals possess a combination of heritage characters, derived from their ancestors, and habitus characters, developed as evolutionary responses to the world in which they live. Another concept was that of polyiseromerism and anisomerism, the contrast of numerous primitive duplicate or similar elements in an organism with more advanced differentiation and reduction of such elements. Gregory also developed his “palimpsest” concept of evolutionary development—the idea that organisms may show a faint record of primitive features beneath their dominant adaptations.

All of these ideas, and many others, were brought together in Gregory’s final great work, Evolution Emerging, a two-volume treatise on vertebrates published in 1951, the first volume devoted to text and the second to hundreds of illustrations, many of them arranged to show evolutionary comparisons and developments.

As might be expected of so eminent a scientist, Gregory was a member of many scientific societies, including the National Academy of Science. At the time of his death he was one of its oldest members.


I. Original Works. Gregory’s writings include “The orders of mammals,” in Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 27 (1910), 1–524; “On the Structure and Relations of Notharctus, an American Eocene Primate,” in Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, 3 (1920), 49–243; The Origin and Evolution of the Human Dentition (Baltimore, 1922); Our Face from Fish to Man (New York, 1929); “Fish Skulls: A Study of the Evolution of Natural Mechanisms,” in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 23 (1933), i-vii, 75–481;’ A Half Century of Trituberculy. The Cope-Osborn Theory of Dental Evolution, with a Revised Summary of Molar Evolution from Fish to Man, ’ in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 73 (1934), 169–317; and Evolution Emerging: A Survey of Changing Patterns from Primeval Life to Man, 2 vols. (New York, 1951).

II. Secondary Literature. A memoir of Gregory that includes a complete bibliography is by Edwin H. Colbert, in Biographical Memoirs: National Academy of Sciences, 46 (1975), 90–133.

Edwin H. Colbert

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Gregory, William King

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