Walcott, Charles Doolittle

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(b. New York Mills, New York, 31 March 1850; d, Washington. D.C., 9 February 1927), paleontology.

Walcott contributed significantly to knowledge of Cambrian faunas and rocks and was an exceptionally able administrator of science for the federal government. The leader during his time in studies of Cambrian rocks and fossils, he began his scientific career, without benefit of college training, when he moved near Trenton Falls, New York There he found one of the first occurrences of trilobites with appendages preserved. His work (1875-1881) on trilobites, amplified forty years later, contributed substantially to establishing the zoological importance and position of this group.

After a year’s work under James Hall in Albany, New York, Walcott joined the newly formed U.S. Geological Survey in 1879. Although it was here that he made his reputation with studies of the Cambrian, he engaged in other stratigraphic studies as well. His Paleontology of the Eureka District (Nevada) (1884) was a standard reference for western fossils.

During the mid-1880’s Walcott became involved in the “Taconic” question, concerning the age of rocks at the eastern boundary of New York state. By finding new fossil localities and reinterpreting cearlier date, he resolved some problems controversial for half a century. Shortly afterward, he was able to establish that Cambrian rocks at St. John, New Brunswick, had been affected by structural complications. This interpretation brought Cambrian fossil zones of North America into harmony with those established earlier in Europe.

During the 1890’s Walcott’s fieldwork took him throughout the country, but this period is best marked by a major work on fossil jellyfish (1898).During this and the subsequent decade he completed a number of papers on Cambrian Brachiopoda. This work culminated in the two-volume Cambrian Brachiopoda (1912), a worldwide study that considered their biology as well as their stratigraphic position.

Starting in 1907, Walcott extended his fieldwork to the high mountains of Alberta and British Columbia, a rugged area he visited almost annually for the next two decades. His contributions to Cambrian geology and paleontology from this area fill five volumes of Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, The most significant event was the discovery in 1909 of the Middle Cambrian Burgess shale deposit. Three years of hard work quarrying these rocks resulted in a spectacular collection of numerous soft-bodied organisms of the sort that are almost never preserved as fossils. This has been described by some authorities as the single most important find of fossils, and its discovery and study would certainly have brought him worldwide fame even if it had been the only work in Walcott’s career. His work was so voluminous, however, that at the time of his death he had described about one–third of all Cambrian fossils then known; he was probably the second or third most prolific student of American paleontology.

Besides his scientific career, Walcott had a remarkable record as an administrator. He rose through the ranks of the U.S. Geological Survey and in 1894 succeeded John Wesley Powell, becoming the third director of the Survey. From 1902 to 1907 he headed both the Survey and the U.S. Reclamation Service, and for eighteen months (1897-1898) he served as acting assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Following the death of S.P. Langley, Walcott was appointed secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1907 and resigned as director of the Geological Survey. During the early years of his secretaryship the Museum of Natural History opened; and in the later years he was able to convince C.L. Freer to allow construction of the gallery to house his art collection. This change of plans—Freer had wished to wait until after his death—was in large measure an indication of his confidence in Walcott.

In 1915 Walcott founded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. He was also one of a small group who approached Andrew Carnegie to request support for basic research. This effort eventually led to the founding of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, with Walcott as one of the original incorporators.

F.G.Cottrell had offered his patents to the Smithsonian in 1911. Although they could not legally be accepted, Walcott and Cottrell conceived the idea of a foundation to supply the Smithsonian and other organizations with funds for scientific research, an idea that was developed into the Research Corporation. He also was active in the organization of the National Park Service.

Walcott was president of the National Academy of Sciences from 1917 to 1923 and was a founder of the National Research Council. His scientific accomplishments brought him the presidencies of, and medals from, several societies and a dozen honorary degrees from universities.


A complete bibliography of Walcott’s works may be found in Ellis L. Yochelson, “Charles Doolittle Walcott, 1850-1927,” in Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Sciences, 39 (1967), 516–540.

Ellis L. Yochelson

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