Newell, Norman Dennis, 1909-2005

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Exist Dates

January 7, 1909 - April 18, 2005

Biographical or Historical Note

Newell was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1909, but his family soon moved to Stafford, a small town in Kansas, where he attended public schools, and first became interested in fossils and geology. He went to the University of Kansas in Lawrence for his B.S. and M.A., later going to Yale for his PhD. (1933). In Kansas he was mentored by Raymond C. Moore, and at Yale by his PhD. Supervisor, Carl O. Dunbar, and by Charles Schuchert and J. Brookes Knight.

After graduating, he spent an additional year at Yale as a Sterling Fellow doing research on fossil bivalve mollusks. Newell’s first professional employment was as a geologist with the Kansas State Geological Survey. His teaching career began with an appointment in 1934 to the University of Kansas geology faculty. In 1937 he was appointed an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin.

In 1942 the U. S. State Department recommended him to the Peruvian government to participate in that country’s survey of petroleum resources. The assignment lasted for three years and included extensive geological mapping in the high Andes.

After World War II, in 1945, he had a joint position as a Professor at Columbia University and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. He officially retired in 1977, but continued his work at the Museum until 2003.

His research and teaching work was in the areas of invertebrate paleontology and geology. Throughout his career he regarded fossil bivalves as a basis for discerning evolutionary principles. Through the first half of the twentieth century, invertebrate paleontologists worked mainly with two goals: (1) discover, describe, and name fossils; (2) apply them in stratigraphic correlation (i.e. similar fossil content in geographically separated formations indicates similar position in the geological time scale). Newell’s work emphasized (1) that the fossils were once living organisms so they should be studied from the standpoint of biological and ecological principles and (2) the resulting information should be integrated with the work of evolutionary biologists to the benefit of both disciplines (mutualism). These concepts are now accepted by all, and the term “paleobiology” is in common use.

Eventually his interests covered the history of the earth and its life, and included the study of ancient and modern reefs, the environment, stratigraphy, extinctions, paleoecology and marine geology, and the teaching of science literacy to students and the general public. He was an active participant in the reactivated creation/evolution controversy.

In addition to Newell’s research at the Museum, a high priority for him was always working in the field with his students and his colleagues, in the United States and in many regions of the world. One former student at Columbia University, and later Professor of Geology at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Donald W. Boyd, was especially active for several decades in collaborating with Newell in research on fossil bivalves.


    Library of Congress Name Authority File
    From biographical note for Newell's archive collection at the AMNH Library, Mss .N495, written by Gillian Newell, 2010.

Related Corporate, Personal, and Family Names

American Museum of Natural History

Related Resources

Norman Dennis Newell collection, 1909-2005 (bulk 1973-2003)
Repository: AMNH Special Collections, Mss .N495

Written by: Iris Lee
Last modified: 2018 October 1


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