Whitefield, Robert Parr

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(b. Willowvale, near New Hartford, New York, 27 May 1828; d. Troy, New York, 6 April 1910)

invertebrate paleontology, stratigraphy.

Whitfield was a second-generation American, son of William Fenton Whitfield, an immigrant English maker of mill spindles, and Margaret Parr. His only formal instruction, which he received principally at a Stockport Sunday school and its library during six years spent with his parents in England, ended when the family returned to New York in 1841. He then worked for seven years in his father’s trade. In 1847 he married Mary Henry of Utica: of their four children, three survived him. At twenty Whitfield was employed by a Utica “philosophical” instruments firm, where he developed his considerable mechanical skills and drafting ability, serving as manager after 1849.

Participation in the Utica Society of Naturalists and collecting local fossils brought Whitfield to the attention of James Hall, whose assistant he became in 1856, succeeding Fielding Meek in 1858. In 1870 he was appointed principal assistant curator of the New York State Museum. At Albany, Whitfield undertook official field studies in New York and western states. More significantly, he drew thousands of superb illustrations and made preliminary analyses of fossil brachiopods, crinoids, and graptolites for the Palaeontology of New York and for the various state surveys of which Hall was either head or contract paleontolo-gist. Much of Whitfield’s best work was produced during his twenty-year association with Hall. It included studies of Paleozoic bivalve mollusks, internal structures of fossil brachiopods, the Paleozoic-Mesozoic paleontology of Nevada and Utah for Clarence King’s Fortieth Parallel Survey, and descriptions of the Black Hills fossils from the Newton-.lenney survey of 1875.

Although he wrote nine papers with Hall during this interval, like his sometimes fellow assistants Meek, Charles White, and William Gabb, Whitfield received less credit in authorship than was his due.1 From 1872 to 1875 he also lectured informally at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, fulfilling Hall’s nominal commitment;2 he served as professor of geology there in 1876–1878, after Hall’s retirement.

Early in 1877 Whitfield became the first curator of the newly organized American Museum of Natural History, with initial charge of geology. Its holdings had just been expanded by the purchase of an immense collection of invertebrate fossils from Hall. Whitfield’s long-continued task of curation led to a protracted, lively correspondence with Hall as to exactly what percentage of the collection has been merely loaned or sold outright.3 Whitfield remained at the Museum, with varying curatorial titles and additional responsibilities, until his retirement in December 1909. He was chiefly responsible for the establishment of the Museum’s Bulletin in 1881, to which he contributed its first five articles. He subsequently wrote numerous descriptions and comparisons of an array of fossil invertebrates, faunas, and their stratigraphic relations. Some were brief, as were many works of late nineteenth-century American paleontologists who often dealt with biotas new to science.

Whitfield’s systematic paleontology included investigations of sponges, brachiopods, mollusks, trilobites, scorpions, crustaceans, and crinoids from diverse locales and periods. Some studies involved new or continued contracts from the state surveys of Minnesota. Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and New Jersey. Of his three quarto investigations of Cretaceous and Miocene invertebrates in New Jersey, which were significant contributions to the paleontology of the Atlantic coast, two were published by both the New Jersey and the U.S. Geological Surveys. Whitfield’s published discussions of species variability and transmutation reflect the American neo-Lamarckian emphasis on environmental modifying influences and inheritance of acquired characters.


1. A controversy over coauthorship of an unsigned preliminary paper on New York Devonian bivalves, inevitably inferred to be by Hall, embittered Whitfield during his last years at Albany. See G. Arthur Cooper, “Concerning the Authorship of the Preliminary Notice of the Lamellibranch Shells of the Upper Helderberg, Hamilton and Chemung Groups, etc., Part 2,” in Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences,21 , no. 18 (1931), 459–467.

2. Complaints in the student yearbook, Transit, and Rensselaer archival records suggest the position was essentially a sine-cure for Hall. “WH-TF. . .D aliasTRILOBITE . First differential coefficient of James H-II, a function of the Ecozoic fossils . . .” appears in the April 1874 Transit. Whitfield is credited with formal service in 1877–1878 by Palmer C. Ricketts, History of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1824–1914 (New York–London, 1914), 228, Ricketts. then president of the Institute, as an undergraduate had credited “the boisterously critical Transit of 1874.” Samuel Rezneck. Education for a Technological Society. A.Se.squicentennial History of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y., 1968). 176, 181.

3. Whitfield sold his won personal collection, including more than 100 type specimens, to the University of California at Berkeley in 1886: see Joseph H. Peck, Jr., and Herdis B. McFarland, “Whitfield Collection Types at the University of California,” in Journal of Paleontology. 28 . no. 3 (1954), 297–309. pl. 29.


I. Original Works. The James Hall Papers (KW 13835) in the Manuscripts and History Department, New York State Library, Albany, contain Whitfield’s letters to Hall written between 1856 and 1893. Record Unit 33 and the uncatalogued collection of the Geology Department in the American Museum of Natural History Archives form the principal depository of Whitfield’s correspondence during the 1896–1910 portion of his curatorship. John James Stevenson’s letter to Fielding Bradford Meek of 10 October 1875 discusses Whitfield’s search for a new position, as do Whitfield’s letters to Meek, Fielding B. Meek Paper,s Record Unit 7062, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In addition to the bibliographies in the memorials by Gratacap and Clarke, 97 of Whitfield’s 110 listed publications are cited in John M. Nickles, “Geologic Literature on North America 1785–1918,” in U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin no. 746, pt. I (1923), 1103–1106. Three additional papers published before 1890 are among those noted in Nelson H. Darton, “Catalogue and Index of Contributions to North American Geology,” ibid., no. 127 (1896), 1010–1011.

II. Secondary Literature. Articles on Whitfield are John M. Clarke, “Biographical Memoir of Robert Parr Whitfield,” in Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 22 (1911), 22–32, with bibliography by Louis Hussakof; Louis P. Gratacap, “Professor Robert Parr Whitfield,” in American Journal of Science, 4th ser.,29 (1910), 565–566; and “Biographical Memoir of Robert Parr Whitfield,” in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 20 (1911), 385–398, with bibliography by Louis Hussakof; Edmund O. Hovey, “Robert Parr Whitfield,” in American Museum Journal, 10 (1910),119–121: Henry B. Nason, ed., Biographical Record of the Officers and Graduates of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1824–1886 (Troy, N.Y., 1887), 158–161: Chester A. Reeds, “Robert Parr Whitfield,” in Dictionary of American Biography, XX (1936), 134–135: and the unsigned “Robert Parr Whitfield,” in National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, V (1907), 92–93.

Clifford M. Nelson