Walcott , Charles Doolittle
(1850–1927) American paleontologist
Walcott was born into a poor family in Utica, New York State, and educated in the public schools there. He began work as a farm laborer and took to collecting the trilobites he found scattered around the farm, some of which he sold to Louis Agassiz. In 1876 he became assistant to the New York state geologist. He moved to the US Geological Survey in 1879 as a field geologist and by 1894 had risen to be its director. In 1907 he accepted the important post of secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, a position he held, along with a number of other offices in scientific administration, until his death in 1927.
Walcott specialized in the Cambrian, the period 550 million years ago when multicellular organisms first appeared. In this field he is best known for his discovery in 1909 of the much discussed Burgess Shale fossils. The shale lies 8000 feet high in the Rockies on the eastern border of British Columbia. Within two strata he found thousands of fossils representing 120 species of marine invertebrates. Further, while most fossils preserve only such hard parts as shells, bones, and teeth, the Burgess specimens by some geological fluke had preserved their soft tissues.
Walcott shipped his material back to Washington. Between 1910 and 1912 he published a few preliminary reports on the “abrupt appearance of the Cambrian fauna.” His initial view that his specimens were early forms of modern groups remained unchallenged. Walcott himself was too concerned with administering American science to have time to reconsider his early ideas. It was not until the 1970s when Harry Whittington began to review Walcott's specimens that it was appreciated that another, more radical, view was possible. Walcott's story is vividly told in S. J. Gould's popular work Wonderful Life (1989).

Scientists. . 2011.

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