Meek, Fielding Bradford

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(b. Madison, Indiana, 10 December 1817; d. Washington, D. C. 21 December 1876)

paleontology, geology.

Meek was an exceptionally able paleontologist who made substantial pioneering contributions to knowledge of extinct faunas and stratigraphic geology. Little is known of his early life in Indiana and Kentucky, except that frail health and the early death of his father rendered his childhood and young adulthood difficult. As a youth he devoted most of his time to the study of natural history. He failed in business, partly because of his preoccupation with fossils, and supported himself as a portrait painter. His first work in geology was as an assistant to D. D. Owen in 1848 and 1849.

From 1852 until 1858 he served as an assistant to James Hall, paleontologist of New York, at Albany. During this interval he worked two summers for the Geological Survey of Missouri and spent the summer of 1853 exploring, with F. V. Hayden, the Badlands of South Dakota and surrounding areas. Accounts and letters indicate that throughout this time Hall tyrannized and exptoited his modest and retiring assistant.

In 1857 Meek first recognized the occurrence of Permian fossils in North America. Unfortunately, he became involved in a bitter controversy concerning the priority of this discovery. He also felt, probably justifiably, that Hall was claiming credit for other significant age determinations that he had made.

In 1858 Meek left Albany and became the first fulltime paleontologist associated with the Smithsonian Institution. Although he received no salary, Joseph Henry permitted him to live in the south tower of the Smithsonian building. Progressive deafness and continued poor health combined to limit his professional contacts.

Despite his physical handicaps, Meek completed a prodigious quantity of descriptions of invertebrate fossils and probably ranks only behind Hall and C. D. Walcott in sheer volume of published pages. Although many works were published jointly with his associate Hayden or with A. H. Worthen of the Illinois Geological Survey, it is likely that almost all of this work, including many plates of illustrations, was done entirely by Meek. Meek also published for the Ohio and California Geological Surveys.

Meek’s principal contributions may be divided into three parts. The first, begun while he was still at Albany, included descriptions and interpretations of fossils collected by Hayden before the Civil War and laid the groundwork for stratigraphic and age interpretations of rocks of the Great Plains. The second part comprised his descriptions of the Paleozoic fossils of Illinois, especially those of Mississippian and Pennsylvanian age. His third great body of work relates to the U. S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, with which his name is closely associated, although he was never formally emptoyed by it. He is particularly noted for investigations of freshwater faunas at the Mesozoic-Cenozoic boundary.

Meek described invertebrate fossils of almost every phylum from all geologic periods, from Cambrian to Tertiary and over a wide area. His descriptions and observations on fossils are still valid; and his geologic interpretations, based on these fossils, have contributed materially to a better understanding of the geology of about half of the United States.


I. Original Works. Meek’s bibliography (see below) contains 106 titles, some of which were written with F. V. Hayden or A. H. Worthen. Following the conventional practice of the times, a number of these are merely preliminary accounts of fossil descriptions, but they are more than balanced by his massive contributions to the Geological Survey of Illinois and to the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey.

II. Secondary Literature. C. A. White, in American Geologist, 18 (1896), 337–350, gives a brief account of Meek’s life based in part on a memorial of 1877. This work and a similar shorter version for Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences (1902), 77–91, include a bibliography of Meek’s works. G. P. Merrill, Contributions to the History of American Geology, U.S. National Museum Annual Report for 1904 (Washington, 1906), provides some additional material on his relations with Hall and priority in scientific discovery.

Ellis L. Yochelson