Williston, Samuel Wendell

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(b. Roxbury, Massachusetts, 10 July 1851; d. Chicago, Illinois, 30 August 1918)

vertebrate paleontology, entomology, medicine.

The fourth child of Samuel Williston–an unschooled blacksmith–and Jane A. Turner, Williston developed an early passion for books and education. Infected by the concern of New Englanders over the fate of Kansas in the turmoil leading to the Civil War, the family moved in 1857 to Manhattan, Kansas, where the young man entered Kansas State Agricultural College in 1866. The inspiring professor of natural sciences Benjamin Franklin Mudge introduced him to science. At the college “there were no laboratories of any kind, no microscopes and but few instruments. The college catalogue of about that time . . . gravely mentions an electrical machine, three Leyden jars and six test-tubes!” (Williston, “Recollections” [1916]). Williston discovered Darwin’s writing on evolution and lectured on them for which he was denounced by the local church.

In 1874, two years after Williston received his B.S., Mudge invited him to join a fossil-collecting trip to western Kansas for Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale. Two summers of collecting led to Williston’s direct employment by Marsh until 1885, as a leader of fossil-collecting expedition in the western United States and as a laboratory assistant in New Haven, Connecticut. He worked at each of the first three American quarries of giant dinosaurs in Colorado and Wyoming soon after their almost simultaneous discovery in 1877.

Torn by uncertainties over which career pursur, Williston, while working for Marsh, also earned an M.D. (1880) and a Ph.D. in entomology (1885), both from Yale. He married Annie Isabel Hathaway in 1881; they had five children.

Williston’s contributions to medicine were chiefly in public health and education. From 1886 to 1890 he taught anatomy at Yale. In 1887 and 1888 he was health officer of New Haven; and from 1888 to 1890 he studied the pollution of rivers for the state of Connecticut. In 1891 he served on the Kansas State Board of Health and helped to establish the licensing and medical registration of doctors there. He was instrumental in establishing the the medical school at the Univesity of Kansas and became its first dean (1898–1902).

In 1890 Williston became a professor of geology and paleontology at the University of Kansas. He immediately began his own expeditions for vertebrate fossils, concentrating on the productive Cretaceous deposits of western Kansas and later on those of eastern Wyoming.

Williston entered paleontology when it was advancing beyond the stage of descriptive classification and was ready for synthesis. Georges Cuvier had described fossil remains, and Richard Owen had proposed the term Dinosauria before 1850. But the fossil remains in America were more extensive than those of Europe, and Darwin’s theory of evolution provided impetus to the exploration of the past. Joseph Leidy had described American fossils, mainly from the east coast. When advancing railroads opened the American West to travel in the 1850’sd and 1860’s, March and Edward Dirnker Cope competed for collections of fossil vertebrates from many different geologic horizons. They described many species and began the classifications of the early reptiles and mammals.

In Kansas, Williston concentrated on mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, and pterodactyls, assembling the known information and describing new species. His detailed observations of the structure and anatomy of these animals enabled him to discuss their probable habits. He also found and described many other single fossils, publishing extensively in the Kansas University Quarterly throughout the 1890’s. He contributed summary articles on the fossil birds, dinosaurs, crocodiles, mosasaurs, and turtles to the geological survey of Kansas (1898).

His acceptance of a professorship at the University of Chicago in 1902 soon changed the direction of his research, perhaps because of the Permian fossils already in the university collection. Whilliston collected extensively in the Permian red beds of Texas and New Mexico, ably aided by his preparator, Paul C. Miller. Rich pockets of fossils produce a wealth of labyrinthodont amphibians and reptiles from the early beginnings of the reptiles; indeed, some of the genera discussed by Williston (e.g., Seymouria) cannot be positively assigned to either one of these classes. His descriptions and synthesis of the classification of these primitive vertebrates stand as his major contribution to paleontology. Always fascinated by anatomy, he presented a number of carefully drawn restorations of the animals he described, many of his papers appearing in the Journal of Geology between 1902 and 1918.

While at the University of Chicago, Williston did not ignore the fossil groups that he had previously studied; in addition to single papers, he published his highly readable Water Reptiles of the Past and Present (1914). His knowledge of the broad spectrum of the reptiles led him to surveys of the evolution of the class and provided a firm foundation for later paleontologists. The Osteology of the Reptiles (1925). in preparation at the time of his death and completed at his request by William K. Gregory, summarized his classification.

Williston was president of the Kansas Academy of Science in 1897, president of Sigma Xi from 1901 to 1904, and delegate to the Ninth International Congress of Zoology at Monaco in 1913. He also received as Sc.D. from Yale in 1913, and in 1915 was elected to the National Academy of Science.

Williston’s early indecision on his own career, combined with what he considered the tyranny of Marsh as an employer (March did not want his employees to publish articles on paleontology), had led him into entomology and medicine. He began collecting beetles first as a diversion on field trips in 1876, but he soon concluded that the order was already too widely known for a beginner to make a name for himself. Quite arbitrarily he selected flies as a hobby for study and he found his diversion highly rewarding. The Diptera of North America had been scarcely touched at the time (the 1870’s), and Williston, through persistence and research in European publications, was able to classify the multitudinous members of the order. He also found his subjects readily available: on picnics, field trips, vacations, and even in the classroom while he lectured on paleontology, Although he never taught courses in entomology, he published a great many papers on Diptera and presented his classification of the order in three successive editions of The Manual of North American Diptera (1888; 2nd ed., 1896; 3rd. ed., 1908), the last edition of which was liberally illustrated by himself. He was consulted by entomologists throughout the world and received many specimens for identification.

Williston was an outstanding teacher and beloved by his student. His broad interests and keen enthusiasm influenced many students who later became prominent in a variety of fields, such as Clarence E. McClung, Ermine Cowles Case, and Barnoum Brown.


I. Original Works. Williston published more than 300 papers and books; about half on paleontology and geology: about 100 on entomology; and the remainder on education, zoology, and public health.

Many of the short papers in paleontology are of value for descriptions of species and for the discussions of phylogenetic relationship. His individuals papers on fossil birds, dinosaurs, crocodiles, mosasaurs, and turtles of Kansas in 1898 (University Geological Survey of Kansas,4 [1898]) are of special value.

Significant review papers on specific cretaceous vertebrate fossil groups include “Kansas Pterodactyls, Part I,” in Kansas University Quarterly,1 (1892), 1–13; “Kanas Pterodactyls, Part II,” ibid.,2 (1893). 79–81; “Range and Distribution of the Mosasaurs, With Remarks on Synonymy,” ibid., A ser., 6 (1897), 177–185; “Mosasaurs” (1898). cited above: “North American Plesiosaurs, Part I,” in Publications. Field Museum of Natural History, Geological ser., 73 (1903), 1–77; and “North American Plesiosaurs; Trinacromerum,” in Journal of Geology,16 (1908). 715–736.

On Permian amphibians and reptiles, see American permian Vertebrates (Chicago, 1911), a summary of the then-known information on this group morphologically and taxonomically; “Primitive Reptiles; A Review,” in Journal of Morphology,23 (1912), 637–663, enlarges the relationship of these animals to a worldwide scale and presents the characters necessary to the Classification: “Permocarboniferous Vertebrates From New Mexico,” in Publications. Carnegie Institution of Washington,181 (1913), offers the results of williston’s collections and description of species in the New Mexico red bed; “Synopsis of the American Permocarboniferous Tetrapoda,” in Contributions From the Walker Musecum,1 (1916), 193–236, is a final summary of the group the Williston knew better that anyone else at the time of his death.

On reptile classification, see Water Reptiles of the Past and Present (Chicago, 1914), with detailed information on the classification, habits, and special adaptations of all aquatic reptiles in their respective geologic periods; “The Phylogency and Classification of Reptiles,” Journal of Geology,25 (1917), 411–421, which contains Williston’s final published graphical classification of the terrestrial vertebrates; and The Osteology of the Reptiles, W. K. Gregory, ed. (Cambridge, 1925). a valuable posthumous work, illustrated by extensive line drawings done by him in his final years.

Williston’s major contributions in entomology were the three successive editions of The Manual of North American Diptera (published in New Haven, with slightly different titles in 1888 and 1896; 3rd ed., 1908). His earlier “Synopsis of North American Syrphidae,” in Bulletin. United States National Museum, no. 31 (1886), is an exhaustive treatise of that family. South American. Central American, and West Indian Diptera were described in several monographs, reference to which can be found in Shor and in Lull (see below)

II. Secondary Literature. Williston’s childhood, youth, and the circumstances leading to his entry into paleontology are contained in his MS “Recollections,” written in 1916: the MS is included in Elizabeth N. Shor’s Fossils and Flies (Norman, Okla., 1971), as is an account of the remainder of Williston’s life, scientific accomplishments, and a complete bibliography, Brief summaries of Williston’s life are in “A Tribute to the Life and Work of Samuel Wendell Williston,” Sigma Xi Quarterly,7 no, 1 (1919); and in Richard S. Lull, “Bibliographical Memoir, Samuel Wendell Williston,” in Memoirs Of the National Academy of Sciences,17 (1924), 115–141. The latter includes a detailed summary of Williston’s paleontological contributions and an almost complete bibliography.

All memorials to Williston prior to Shor give the date of his birth as 1852 instead of 1851, because of an indecipherable date in “Recollections.” A birth certificate from Boston (which now includes Roxbury), Mass., confirms the birth date of 1851.

Elizabeth Noble Shor