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Colbert, Edwin H. (Edwin Harris), 1905-2001



Edwin Harris Colbert (1905-2001) was born in Clarinda, Iowa in 1905 and grew up in Missouri. While he displayed an interest in paleontology from a young age, he initially planned to pursue a career in forestry. In college, however, Colbert shifted paths to paleontology, getting his bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska in 1928. In the same year he started taking part in expeditions to western Nebraska. He went on to pursue a masters (1930) and PhD (1935) from Columbia University. The year he got his masters, he became a research assistant to Curator Henry Fairfield Osborn at the American Museum of Natural History. Colbert became Assistant Curator in 1933, the same year that he married into a paleontological family: his wife was Margaret Matthew, an artist who depicted extinct species and the daughter of paleontologist William Diller Matthew. In 1935, Colbert received the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences for his work at the AMNH on Siwalik mammals. When Barnum Brown retired in 1942, Colbert became Acting Curator for the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology, obtaining the title Curator in 1943. He remained a full curator for the rest of his career at the museum, in addition to serving as the Chairman of the Department of Fossil and Recent Reptiles and Amphibians, and subsequently as Chairman of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology. In 1944, Colbert oversaw the transfer of fossil fish to his department (then the Department of Geology and Paleontology).

During his time in the VP department, Colbert completed expeditions to Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Brazil, Israel, South Africa, India, and Antarctica. He also oversaw the renovation of Brontosaur Hall in 1953, and founded and edited AMNH’s Curator magazine from 1958-1963. While he made many dinosaur discoveries in his time at AMNH, one of his most notable paleontological contributions at the museum was being part of the group that discovered the remains of Lystrosaurus in Antarctica in 1969. This discovery supported the continental drift theory. After spending 40 years working at AMNH, Colbert moved on to become a Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Museum of Northern Arizona. In addition to his contributions to the AMNH and the Museum of Northern Arizona, Colbert was a consultant on the staff of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. He taught Paleontology as a Professor at Columbia, as well as teaching courses at other colleges such as Bryn Mawr and the University of Pennsylvania. He maintained Professor Emeritus status at Columbia. He popularized dinosaurs with publications like “The Dinosaur Book: The Ruling Reptiles and Their Relatives” (1945), which was approachable and featured many illustrations, along with over 20 other books and over 400 scientific articles.

Selected Bibliography

Colbert, Edwin H. The Age of Reptiles. The World Naturalist. New York: Norton, 1965.

Colbert, Edwin H, Charles Robert Knight, American Museum of Natural History, and American Museum of Natural History. The Dinosaur Book : The Ruling Reptiles and Their Relatives. 2nd ed. New York: Published for the American Museum of Natural History by McGraw-Hill, 1951.

Colbert, Edwin H. Digging into the Past : An Autobiography. New York: Dembner Books, 1989.

Colbert, Edwin H, Eli C Minkoff, and Michael Morales. Colbert's Evolution of the Vertebrates : A History of the Backboned Animals through Time. 5th ed. New York: Wiley, 2001.

Colbert, Edwin H. Dinosaurs, an Illustrated History. Maplewood, N.J.: Hammond, 1983.

Colbert, Edwin H. Dinosaurs : Their Discovery and Their World. London: Hutchinson, 1962.

Colbert, Edwin H, George Geygan, and Paul Geygan. The Dinosaur World. New York: Stravon Educational Press, 1977.

Colbert, Edwin H. A Fossil-Hunter's Notebook : My Life with Dinosaurs and Other Friends. 1st ed. New York: Dutton, 1980.

Colbert, Edwin H. The Great Dinosaur Hunters and Their Discoveries. Heritage Collection. New York: Dover Publications, 1984.

Colbert, Edwin H. The Little Dinosaurs of Ghost Ranch. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Colbert, Edwin H. Men and Dinosaurs : The Search in Field and Laboratory. [1St ed.]ed. New York: Dutton, 1968.

Colbert, Edwin H. Millions of Years Ago : Prehistoric Life in North America. New York: Crowell, 1958.

Colbert, Edwin H. Siwalik Mammals in the American Museum of Natural History. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society ... New Ser., Vol. Xxvi. Philadelphia: American philosophical Society, 1935.

Colbert, Edwin H. Wandering Lands and Animals : The Story of Continental Drift and Animal Populations. New York: Dover, 1985.

Colbert, Edwin H, William A Burns, and Robert Borja. Digging for Dinosaurs. Newed. Adventures in Nature and Science. Chicago: Childrens Press, 1967.

Colbert, Edwin H. William Diller Matthew, Paleontologist : The Splendid Drama Observed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Colbert, Edwin H. The Year of the Dinosaur. New York: Scribner, 1977.


National Academy of Sciences,

Edwin H. Colbert,

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology,

Colbert, Edwin H., AMNH Authority File,

Found in 17 Collections and/or Records:

Barnum Brown papers

Identifier: VPA 114
Scope and Contents

The collection consists of Brown's correspondence, notes, images and maps relating to his field work, papers of his second wife, Lilian Brown, drafts of unfinished autobiography, notes and illustrations for his scientific articles, records of his work for the museum, including exhibition halls, records of his commercial work as well as reports from his consulting work for the goverment. The collection also contains papers of Peter Kaisen who was a long-term Brown's assistant.

Dates: 1877-1963

Edwin H. Colbert collection

Identifier: VPA 115

Department of Vertebrate Paleontology correspondence

Identifier: VPA 105
Scope and Contents Department of Vertebrate Paleontology correspondence from 1887-1966, alphabetized by subject or author. Hundreds of scientists worldwide are represented by correspondence and include Alexander Agassiz, Glover M. Allen, Florentino Ameghino, Erwin H. Barbour, Franz Boas, Stephen F. Borhegyi, Robert Broom, Barnum Brown, Hermon C. Bumpus, Edwin H. Colbert, Thomas Alva Edison, Walter Granger, William T. Gregory, Claude W. Hibbard, D.A. Hooijer, William T. Hornaday, Remington Kellogg, Charles R....
Dates: 1887-1966

Rachel H. Nichols papers

Identifier: VPA 124
Scope and Contents Rachel H. Nichols served as a cataloger, staff assistant and finally as a scientific assistant and replaced Miss Lucas in charge of the Osborn Library. The records that resulted consist of a great variety of subjects and represent her activities both in some personal enterprises and in her official capacity. Box 1 (1908-1966) contains Osborn Library history, organization, and administrative activity (1908-1962); excerpts from the publication Fossil Vertebrates, vi-xii (1926-1939), v.16-19...
Dates: 1901-1966

Norman Dennis Newell Collection, 1909-2005 (bulk 1973-2003)

Identifier: Mss .N495
Scope and Contents These papers consist of Newell’s scientific work at the American Museum of Natural History from 1973-2005, and Columbia University from 1945-1997; and his contributions mentioned below in the individual Series. They also include some personal and family papers dating from his childhood in Kansas through his education at the University of Kansas at Lawrence and Yale University, to his death in 2005. Series I: Correspondence with Individuals (includes some institutions, where...
Dates: 1909-2005 (bulk 1973-2003)

Paleontology Field Expedition to Arizona photographic slides, 1946.

Identifier: PSC 391

Field photographs from the AMNH Expedition to Arizona in 1946. Photographs of fossils, fossil beds, images of paleontologists working in the field, plastering specimens, boxing, packing and loading of specimens.

Dates: 1946

Rams of the rimrock ; Brontosaurus ; Trance and dance in Bali

Identifier: Film Collection no. 27
Scope and Contents SEGMENT 1: Rams of the Rimrock. Harold E. Anthony, AMNH mammalogist, introduces the first segment of this program while standing in front of the bighorn sheep diorama in the museum's Hall of North American Mammals and discusses the courtship behavior of the rams. This film, made by naturalist and AMNH lecturer Cleveland Grant, depicts the animals in head-on collisions fighting for mates. These rams have been known to fight for days over one female. SEGMENT 2: Brontosaurus. Shot in the Hall...
Dates: 1953

Series 1: Correspondence, 1958-2024

Scope and Contents This series primarily contains correspondence with Gaffney's scientific colleagues from the United States, Australia, Germany, the Soviet Union, China, Argentina, and many countries arond the world. Also included is correspondence with Gaffney's American Museum of Natural History colleagues, and letters dating from Gaffney's time as an undergraduate at Rutgers University and earlier. Of special interest is Gaffney's long correspondence with two of his mentors: Princeton University...
Dates: 1958-2024