Biographies of Famous Paleontologists

These are biographical sketches of paleontologists of the past who made important contributions to the study of fossils in California. These biographical sketches were originally published in the society's Bulletin. Additional sketches will be added after they appear in the Bulletin.
  1. G Dallas Hanna
  2. V. L. VanderHoof
  3. Annie Alexander
  4. Ralph Arnold
  5. Loye Miller
  6. Myra Keen
  7. Remington Kellogg
  8. Chester Stock
  9. James G. Cooper
  10. Hildegarde Howard
  11. Timothy Conrad
  12. David Starr Jordan
  13. Laura Hecox
  14. Leo Hertlein

G Dallas Hanna

If the title "Renaissance Man of the Natural Sciences" was to be bestowed, G Dallas Hanna would be a chief contender. He led an extraordinarily rich scientific life, most of it while Curator of Paleontology (and later Geology) at the California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. During his lifetime, he authored approximately 450 publications, from abstracts, popular articles, and reviews, to lengthy scientific papers.

Hanna was born in Arkansas in 1887 and graduated from the University of Kansas in 1911. After working for the Bureau of fisheries in Alaska, he returned to school and received his Ph.D. from George Washington University in 1918.

He had many interests, as demonstrated by the diverse subject matter of his publications. Here is a sampling: land mollusks of Kansas, mammals of the Pribilof Islands, amphibians from the Carboniferous of Illinois, birds of Golden Gate Park, a fossil whale from the Miocene of California, introduced mollusks of the San Francisco Bay region, the geology of Sharktooth Hill in Kern County, preserving nudibranchs, illustrating fossils, how to repair binoculars, and articles on diatoms. Hanna's accomplishments seem more in keeping with the era of Leonardo da Vinci than with the period just a few decades ago.

He did, however, have his specialties; these were primarily mollusks and diatoms. With regard to mollusks, his interests ranged from fossil to modern, from terrestrial to marine, from native to introduced.

Hanna published numerous articles on fossil and modern diatoms, many pertaining to California. His interest in microfossils led him to invent a "mechanical finger" for manipulating specimens under magnification, to develop improved mounting media, and to take up the study of optics. During World War II, when German-made lenses became unavailable, he set up an optical shop at the Academy, grinding lenses for the U.S. Navy. After the war, he converted the shop to civilian use, building the planetarium projector for the Academy's Morrison Planetarium.

Despite being a curator and prolific writer, Hanna was not one to stay cooped up in the museum. He traveled extensively, often to Alaska. As a young man, he made a thousand mile journey from Bristol Bay to Iditerod and back by dogsled. Fifty years later, in 1964, he was back yet again, to investigate first-hand the damage from the great Alaskan earthquake.

G Dallas Hanna died in 1970 but his legacy lives on. Others continue research on diatoms, using and building upon the extensive data, collections, and library he assembled. In 1987 the Academy established the G Dallas Hanna Chair in diatom studies, which is currently held by J. Patrick Kociolek.

(One final note: Hanna had only the letter "G" for a first name. Therefore, as with Harry S Truman, the letter is not an abbreviation and does not need a period after it.)

By Frank Perry

Further Reading:

Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences,April 24, 1962 (v. 32, no. 1);

California Geology,April, 1991, p. 75-82.

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V.L. VanderHoof

A number of years ago, when I began reading about the history of geology and paleontology in California, I came across the name V.L. VanderHoof. It seems that the history of geology and paleontology was a subject that intrigued him as well, for he published several articles on the topic. Now, nearly 40 years after his death, V.L. VanderHoof has become part of that history.

Vertress Lawrence VanderHoof ("Van" to his friends) was born in Contra Costa County in 1904. His parents were descendants of Dutch immigrants who had first settled in New York. Tragically, his father was killed in an accident when young VanderHoof was only 14. Despite his having to work after school to help support his family, he did well in his studies and took all the various college prerequisites while at San Francisco Polytechnic High School. After graduating in 1922, he worked for two years at a Westinghouse factory winding motor armatures for 50 cents an hour so as to save up enough money to go to college.

He entered Bakersfield Junior College in 1924. It was during summer employment in the oil fields that he met G Dallas Hanna (see above), who introduced him to the exciting world of geology and paleontology. VanderHoof was hooked, and soon transferred to U.C. Berkeley as a geology major. In 1927, while working for Professor William Diller Matthew, he decided to focus his interests on fossil vertebrates. He received his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1935 after completing his doctoral dissertation onDesmostylus- an extinct sea mammal. He had only teeth and a few other parts of the animal for analysis. At a time when there were a host of theories about its affinities, VanderHoof believed that Desmostyluswas most closely related to sea cows. Later discoveries showed he was not far off the mark.

Among his accomplishments, VanderHoof was the first to describe true sea cow fossils from the Santa Cruz Mountains (in 1941). He also excavated, prepared, and described the great skull of Bison latifronsfrom Shasta County and studied the famous Black Hawk Ranch fauna from Mt. Diablo. In the late 1930s he took on the unrewarding and tedious job of helping compile a world-wide bibliography of publications on fossil vertebrates for the years 1928 through 1933 (published in 1940).

Paleontologist Charles Camp likened his collegue,"Van," to Abe Lincoln: 6 foot 4 inches tall, slender, strong arms and hands, and an engaging humor and intellect.

During WW II VanderHoof worked at Berkeley on the Manhattan Project, applying his mechanical ingenuity to the war effort. Afterwards, he was a successful professor at Stanford. A few more years passed, and he left Stanford to work as a geologist for a petroleum exploration company with offices in Bakersfield and Santa Barbara. In 1959 he changed jobs yet again, becoming director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. There, in just a few years, he supervised major expansions of the museum library, exhibit halls, and public programs.

VanderHoof died in March, 1964, after a long illness. Ironically, only a few months after his passing, the skeleton of the desmostylian Paleoparadoxiawas found in the hills behind the campus where he had once taught. How sad that he missed out on this exciting find, literally in Stanford's backyard. Appropriately, the mounted skeleton of this fossil, at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, is dedicated to his memory.

By Frank Perry

Further Reading:

Bull. Geol. Soc. of Am.,v. 76, p. 31-35, 1965.

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Annie Alexander

It is impossible to describe Annie Montague Alexander with just one word. She was, among other things, a collector, naturalist, adventurer, world traveler, and a patroness of paleontology. She was born in Hawaii in 1867, a descendent of New England missionaries who had settled on the islands early in that century. Her father, Samuel Alexander, pioneered the raising of sugar cane and was a partner in the Matson Navigation Company. She spent her early years tutored by a governess at her family's estate on the island of Maui.

In 1882 the family moved to Oakland where she finished her education in public schools. When she was 20, the family vacationed in Europe and arranged for her to study art in Paris. Plagued by eye strain, she soon had to give up her artistic pursuits. The frustration must have been maddening and for a time she feared she might go blind. Exasperated, she eventually burned all of her paintings. After returning to Oakland, she entered the Fabiola Hospital as a student nurse. But this, too, was a great strain on her eyes, and she had to quit.

The young Miss Alexander began searching for vocations involving nature and the great outdoors, for there she found she could enjoy life without hurting her eyes. In 1893 she toured Europe by bicycle with her father and younger sister Martha. Next, she made trips with her father to New Zealand, Java, China, Japan, Samoa, Australia, and Africa.

In 1899 she embarked on the first of a series of Sierra camping trips with her childhood friend, Martha Beckwith. They began in Auburn and meandered their way on horseback to Crater Lake, Oregon, collecting plant and animal specimens. The trip took ten weeks.

Her passion for paleontology began in the year 1900 when she was 33. While her parents were spending several months in India, she attended lectures by paleontologist John C. Merriam at U.C. Berkeley. Merriam's fabulous descriptions of prehistoric life immediately captured Miss Alexander's interest. She asked Dr. Merriam if she might fund some collecting expeditions in exchange for being able to participate. Merriam accepted her generous offer, and thus began Miss Alexander's half-century association with the paleontology department at Berkeley. In paleontology she had found yet another outdoor vocation she could pursue. She funded expeditions to Fossil Lake, Oregon in 1901, to Shasta County in 1902 and 1903, and to Nevada in 1905. Her written account of the 1905 expedition reveals her substantial knowledge of the sciences. In 1906 she began making monthly financial gifts to the department. She increased her donations over the years, and also made many contributions for special purposes such as student research visits to East Coast museums, faculty sabbaticals, and field expenses.

She not only funded paleontology, but also zoology and botany. Needless to say, Miss Alexander developed quite a bit of clout with university officials, sometimes lobbying the President and occasionally even the Regents for improvements that she thought were needed. She helped establish the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in 1908, the Museum of Paleontology in 1921, and supported the University Herbarium. She collected specimens for all three. In 1934 she set up an endowment for the Museum of Paleontology and later established a scholarship fund for students of that science.

Miss Alexander dealt skillfully with university administrators. She always gave careful thought to her offers of financial support. Major gifts came with the condition that the university also support the project. Although she was not a research scientist, she quickly grasped what the important questions were and where research money was needed. She realized that specimens had to be properly documented and curated if they were to be of scientific value.

Her petiteness belied her hardiness for the out-of-doors. The wealthy heiress apparently preferred pack trips to parties and the trapping of mammal specimens to the trappings of wealth. At age 54 she collected Miocene camels near Barstow. At age 69 she spent the winter exploring the Inyo Mountains (the university sent a rescue party after she was snowbound for a month). She celebrated her 80th birthday (in 1947) with a plant-hunting trip to a remote mountain region of Baja California. In 1950 she made plans to visit Hawaii, but delayed her trip to catch a series of lectures by famed paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson. She took ill before she could set sail for her native island and died September 10, 1950, at age 82. The endowment and scholarship program live on, and the thousands of plant, fossil, and animal specimens she collected remain an invaluable part of the university's teaching and research collections. Quite appropriately, paleontologist Samuel P. Welles named the plesiosaur, Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae,in her honor.

By Frank Perry

Further Reading:

"Annie Montague Alexander" by Joseph T. Gregory (UCMP News,October, 1995);

"Annie Montague Alexander: Her Work in Paleontology" by Janet Lewis Zullo (Journal of the West,April, 1969);

"Annie Alexander-- The Intrepid Collector" (PG&E Progress,July, 1980);

"Maui Heiress With a Love For Science" by Millie Robbins (San Francisco Chronicle,Feb. 27, 1974, p. 21).

Addendum - After this biographical sketch was written, a book about Alexander was published:
On Her Own Terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West,by Barbara R. Stein (Univ. of Calif. Press, 2001)

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