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Joseph T. Gregory, 1914–2007

A fine portrait of Joe Gregory, circa 1989
A fine portrait of Joe Gregory, circa 1989, from a volume on the Triassic of the American Southwest that was dedicated to him.2

Joseph Tracy Gregory was born in Eureka, California on July 28, 1914. Joe came to Berkeley as an undergraduate in 1931 and took an introductory paleontology class from Professors Charles Camp and Ralph Chaney. The class inspired him to turn his youthful interest in vertebrate paleontology into what would prove to be a long and distinguished career.

During his undergraduate years, Joe did field work with Camp in the Triassic of Arizona and New Mexico. After achieving his A.B. in 1935, he continued on at Berkeley as a graduate student under Dr. Ruben Stirton, concentrating on Pliocene mammals from Big Springs Canyon, South Dakota. Joe received his Ph.D. in 1938 and then moved east to take a postdoctoral position at the American Museum of Natural History. While there, he also did part-time lecturing in zoology at Columbia University.

From late 1939 through 1941 Joe worked at the Bureau of Economic Geology, University of Texas, in Austin. During this period he collected vertebrates from all over the state. In charge of a lab project with the WPA (Works Progress Administration) — a program that provided work for a large number of unemployed people during the post-Depression era — one of Joe's work crews found the Triassic reptile, Trilophosaurus. Joe's interest in this particular reptile led to a position as instructor of geology and curator of fossil vertebrates at the University of Michigan, as the successor of E.C. Case, the man who had first described the species.

Joe and other paleontologists on a 1947 field trip
Triceratops skull collected by Joe Gregory in 1970
Top: Joe Gregory, second from left, joins some of the big names in paleontology on a 1947 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology field trip to look at Triassic and Early Jurassic deposits in northern Arizona. From left, George Gaylord Simpson, Joe, Edwin Colbert, Alfred Romer, and Bryan Patterson. Bottom: The large Triceratops skull on display in the Biosciences Library lobby (inset) was collected by Joe Gregory and students during field work in eastern Montana in 1970. This is a photo taken by Joe on Day 2 of the excavation, with portions of the frill visible on the right. The previous day's entry in Joe's field notes reads "From here NW about ¾ mile to site where John Ruben found a ceratopsian skull. We dug around this all afternoon, exposing large areas of the frill, and the right maxillary. Specimen is broken, but in fair condition of preservation."
Joe had been at Michigan for just a short time when he entered the United States Army Air Force in 1941. During World War II he served as a meteorologist and he remained in the Air Force Reserve until 1964, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Following the war, Joe taught at the University of Michigan's summer field camp (1946) before heading to Yale University, where he was to remain for the next 14 years. As assistant, and later associate, professor in the Department of Geology and curator in the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Joe's focus was on the Triassic of New Mexico and Texas.

In 1960, Joe came home to the Department and Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley where he became professor of paleontology and curator of lower vertebrates. He served as chair of the department from 1960 to 1965 and then as director of the museum from 1971 to 1975. As director, Joe initially spent much effort trying to smooth over departmental feuding, which had been fierce during the 1950s and 1960s. This friction eventually eased by the 1970s.

The chief event of Joe's directorship was the negotiation for the Blackhawk Ranch fossil locality. The quarry on this land contains a rich mammal fauna which had been of interest to Berkeley paleontologists since the 1930s. For 30 years, courses in paleontology had included regular field trips there. When the ranch went up for sale in 1971, Joe initiated talks with the Blackhawk Corporation, which was buying the land. He gained permission to continue trips to the locality and was instrumental in the eventual donation to UCMP of a small tract of land surrounding the quarry.

Following Charles Camp, Joe served 20 years (1969-1989) as editor of the "Bibliography of Fossil Vertebrates," initially for the American Geological Institute and then for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP). The Bibliography was an enormous task, attempting "… to include every published scientific work that mentioned vertebrate fossils. In addition, it included works that dealt with closely related subjects such as evolutionary theory, geology, and the history of science, where relevant."1 In 1992, the SVP established the Joseph T. Gregory Award, given annually in recognition of members who have made significant contributions to the development of the field of vertebrate paleontology and to the society. Joe was a founding member of the SVP in 1940.

Joe taught in the Department of Paleontology until 1979, when he retired and became Professor Emeritus. He continued his work on the history of paleontology, and was especially interested in the history of Berkeley's Department and Museum of Paleontology. This interest was reflected in a series of UCMP News articles on past UCMP directors that Joe contributed between 1996 and 1998.

Joe Gregory's research interests were summed up nicely in a 1989 volume on the Triassic of the American Southwest dedicated to Joe and edited by Adrian Hunt and Spencer Lucas. They wrote:

Joe's principal research interests ranged from Pennsylvanian Mazon Creek vertebrates through Permian microsaurs to Late Cenozoic mammals and the history of science with forays into acanthodians, mosasaurs, coelacanths and the origin of freshwater lake deposits ….

However, Joe's greatest contributions to science … are in the field of Late Triassic vertebrates of the American Southwest. Joe did extensive fieldwork in the Triassic, particularly in Texas and New Mexico, but also in Arizona and Utah. In 1962, he published a revision of the phytosaurs, which remains highly influential today, and several other papers on phytosaur taxonomy. He also did important work on aetosaurs and wrote the definitive monograph on the enigmatic Triassic reptile Trilophosaurus. Perhaps even more important than any of his taxonomic work, were a series of papers that utilized Late Triassic vertebrates for biochronology on a regional and intercontinental scale.2

Joe died November 18 in Houston, Texas, at the age of 93. He did not write for the popular press so his name may not be too familiar outside paleontology circles, but there is no question that Joseph T. Gregory will be remembered by his peers as one of the major figures in paleontology and by the museum as a leader, mentor, and friend.

1Bibliography of Fossil Vertebrates History. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. 6 Dec. 2007

2Lucas, S.G., and A.P. Hunt. 1989. Dedication to Joseph Gregory. P. 1 in S.G. Lucas and A.P. Hunt (eds.). Dawn of the Age of Dinosaurs in the American Southwest. New Mexico Museum of Natural History, Albuquerque, NM.

Primary sources:

Clemens, W.A., and K. Padian. 29 Nov. 2007. Paleontologist Joseph Gregory has died at 93 (press release). University of California Berkeley. 6 Dec. 2007

Boyer, Sarah. 1998. Joseph T. Gregory: director of UCMP, 19711975. UCMP News June 1998. P. 2.

Portrait of Joe courtesy of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science; 1947 field trip photos by Tad Nichols, UCMP Archives; 1970 photo of Triceratops frill bones by Joe Gregory, UCMP Archives; photo of mounted Triceratops skull by Josh Frankel, UCMP.