Leonard Richard Wilson was born in Superior, Wisconsin
July 23, 1906. He died at his home in Norman, Oklahoma, July 15,
1998 at the age of 92. He was the elder of two sons of Ernest and
Sara Jane Cooke Wilson. He is survived by his wife Marian De Wilde
whom he married September 1, 1930. Their son, Richard Graham Wilson,
of West Fork, Arkansas, and daughter Marcia Graham Wilson Roe of Norman,
Oklahoma, 11 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren also survive.
Richard (Dick) Wilson was proud of his roots as a Viking. He
traced his forebears back through three centuries to Viking
communities in the Orkney
Islands and Thurso, Scotland, which borders the strait that
separates the Orkneys from the mainland of Scotland, and into
Richard grew up in Superior, Wisconsin. There, a physician neighbour,
Dr George Conklin, first introduced Dick to the great world of the
natural sciences. Conklin was an expert on bryophytes and was curator of
the Sullivant Moss Society's worldwide collections of mosses and
liverworts. Dr Conklin also conducted research on freshwater sponges.
Wilson later utilized these invertebrates in his studies of Wisconsin's
freshwater lakes. Conklin also led Wilson through scouting to become
the first Eagle Scout in Superior.
Dick had a paper route that included several of the faculty members
of Superior State Teachers College (now University of Wisconsin -
Superior). Prof. J. A. Merrill, who taught geology and geography at
the college, was one of his customers. Merrill had studied at Harvard
and his doctoral thesis was on a Cretaceous problem in Texas. Merrill,
who had also published the first paper on hystrichosphaerids in the
United States, taught Dick to recognize those microorganisms. Wilson's
fascination with these grew through his years as he worked with freshwater
lakes and later whenever he examined marine rock samples.
Richard enjoyed outdoor activities as a boy, including skiing cross-country.
He later became a down-hill skier and broke his back preparing for the
1928 Olympic tryouts in ski-jumping. He liked biking and he once took
a one-thousand-mile tour in England. Also in college, he joined the
fencing team and later he coached fencing at Coe College.
This broad background in botany and geology impressed the various
professors with whom he studied at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
He became field assistant to Norman C. Fassett (systematic botany).
He also caught the attention of William H. Twenhofel (geology and
sedimentology), F. T. Thwaites (glacial geology) and E. A. Birge
(zoology and limnology). Professor Birge, who was director of the
Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, engaged Wilson to
assist in some of his own research on biology of freshwater lakes.
Later, as president of the University of Wisconsin, Birge, who was
then studying the physics of light as it affects plant growth in
lakes, became a lifelong friend and continued some research with
Wilson for several years.
Wilson's family desired that he should have some education in England,
so he went to Leeds University in Yorkshire for his junior year. Leeds
is only about 100 km south of his grandparents' home at Stockton-on-Tees,
England, near Newcastle. There he studied with W. H. Burrell, director of
the University Herbarium. Burrell has been credited with publishing the
first paper on pre-Pleistocene palynology in England, 1924. During Wilson's
year at Leeds, Gunnar Erdtman, Swedish pioneer in pollen analysis,
presented several lectures there which initiated Burrell's and Wilson's
interest in the palynology of peat and coal. This interest grew rapidly
in Wilson's mind and was applied first in his masters' and doctoral
research on Wisconsin's peat deposits. Fred Thwaites and Norman Fassett
directed Wilson's study of the vegetation and geology of the Two Creeks
Forest bed, which became an internationally recognized focal point for
Late Wisconsinan glacial deposits.
Wilson's doctoral dissertation, an analysis of plant microfossils in 10
bogs, Douglas County, Wisconsin was used to determine the history of the
several stages in the shorelines of the Nipissing Great Lakes and Lakes
Algonquin and Duluth. This information enabled Wilson to demonstrate
several stages of plant succession over the glacial terrain and the
vegetation's control of soil type, certain other edaphic factors, and
effects of fire. He also prepared another extensive report, equivalent
to another Ph.D. dissertation, on lake development and plant succession
in the Highland District, Muskellunge Moraine, and the outwash area of
Vilas County, Wisconsin.
Wilson was instructor to professor of geology at Coe College, Cedar
Rapids, Iowa, 1934-1947; professor and head of the Geology and Mineralogy
Department, University of Massachusetts, 1947-1956; professor of geology,
Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University; geologist,
Oklahoma Geological Survey 1957-1977; professor of geology, University
of Oklahoma 1957-1962; Curator of Micropaleontology and Paleobotany,
Sam Noble Museum of Science and History (now Oklahoma Museum of Natural
History); and the George Lynn Cross Research Professor of Geology and
Geophysics, University of Oklahoma, 1969 - 1977, when he became professor
emeritus of geology and curator emeritus of micropaleontology and paleobotany.
Dick was Melhaupt Scholar, Ohio State University 1939- 1940 working on
pollen-analysis of Ohio prairies and woodlands of the Postglacial
Xerothermic Interval with the eminent ecologist, Prof. E. N. Transeau
of Ohio State University. He was director of the Greenland Ice Cap
project, "Mint Julep", 1952-1953. He worked with Robert Shrock at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology field camp in Nova Scotia during
the summers of 1950-1955. Wilson also applied his knowledge of
biostratigraphy and palynology to professional contract work for several
oil companies in United States and South America, 1945 to 1972.
Wilson was a serious, dedicated teacher. He demanded much from his
students in reports and notebooks. He gave very tough examinations
reading material and identification of the age, source, and history
of various rocks and samples of rocks. He also included a great deal
of botanical information in his geology lectures and field trips. Dr
Edmund, at the fiftieth anniversary of the National Association of
Geology Teachers (NAGT) in a pre-sentation to Wilson in 1988 wrote,
"L. R. Wilson championed the field as the best way to teach earth
processes .... students followed him into the field, into the lab,
and into research." Wilson had been one of five founders of the
Association of College Geology Teachers in 1938, the forerunner of
the National Association of Geology Teachers.
Wilson worked diligently with James M. Schopf in the preparation of
the landmark paper "An annotated synopsis of Paleozoic fossil spores
and the definition of generic groups", published by the Illinois State
Geological Survey in 1944. In that paper, which was a major factor in
bringing order to the presentation of palynological information of
pre-Pleistocene palynological studies in North America, they elucidated
seven guiding principles for classifying and defining the then-existing
genera of fossil pollen and spores.
Wilson, together with one of his former part-time students, Ruth Webster,
as an assistant, completed an exhaustive study of the palynology of the
strata in two wells in Texas for Carter Oil Company (early subsidiary of
Exxon Production and Research Company). These analyses, with over 9500
photomicrographs, were published in five volumes. Distribution of these
tomes was limited to a few specialists and museums. However, this
extended study contributed importantly to the application of palynological
techniques to the exploration for oil by several companies immediately
following World War II.
Professor Wilson directed about 50 masters and doctoral theses. Many of
those students constituted the nuclei of the staffs of several oil company
palynological laboratories. Several became teachers, some worked for various
geological surveys, and a few entered other areas of geological research,
exploration or administration. Wilson published about 200 research reports,
notes and abstracts.
Wilson received numerous honours and awards. He was a Fellow in the
Geological Society of America (GSA) and a member of the Botanical
Society of America (BSA) and the American Association for the Advancement
of Science (AAAS) for over 50 years. He was elected as an Honorary Member
of the American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists (AASP),
founding member of the National Association of Geology Teachers (NAGT),
and Erdtman International Medalist for Palynology from the Paleontological
Society of India. He was a longtime member of various other societies and
several state academies of science. Wilson served on the Commission
Internationale de Microflora du Paleozoic, and the editorial board of
Micropaleontology. He was elected to the Order of Mark Twain on the
basis of research in Greenland and Pleistocene to Recent deposits in
He was a member and sometime president of the Oklahoma Chapter of the
Society of Sigma Xi and the Oklahoma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa honorary
scholastic fraternity. He was adviser to the University of Massachusetts
chapter of the honorary geologic fraternity, Sigma Gamma Epsilon.
Wilson's role as an educator was outstanding. His contributions to
application of palynology to exploration for oil, and interpretation
of environments of deposition of ancient sedimentary rocks have been
preeminent. He was a gentleman of high character and scholarly pursuits.
He was an indefatigable teacher and firm disciplinarian in classroom,
laboratory, and field studies, and a pioneer in several areas of his
research. He continued to publish short papers almost to the time of
his death. He was a true "Viking" through 65 years of the highest order
of professional contribution to teaching and research in biological and
He was the major player in the rise of palynological science in the
middle of the 20th Century.
Aureal T. Cross
Department of Geological Sciences
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan, MI 48824, USA
Note: This article appeared in CAP Newsletter 21(2):14-17, 1998.