John A. (Jack) Wilson (1915-2008)

Wilson JackJohn A. (Jack) Wilson, professor emeritus of geology at The University of Texas at Austin died, October 21, 2008, at the age of 93. Wilson received a B.A. degree in 1937 and a Ph.D. in 1941, both from the University of Michigan. He taught geology and paleontology at the Idaho School of Mines until he joined the U.S. Navy in 1943. He served on the aircraft carrier USS Hancock in some of the great naval battles of the Pacific Theater.

In 1946, Jack joined the geology faculty of UT Austin. During the next 30 years, he taught a variety of courses, including historical geology, stratigraphy, history of geology, and a two-semester graduate course in vertebrate paleontology.

Upon his arrival in Texas, he had the opportunity to work on the extensive and largely unstudied collection of fossil vertebrates amassed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The large collections of mid-Cenozoic mammals from the Gulf Coastal Plain soon claimed his attention. This material came from several stratigraphic units that enabled him and his students to set up a biostratigraphic sequence for Miocene units of this region. Wilson was among the first vertebrate paleontologists to explore the fabulous fossil deposits of Big Bend National Park in Texas, finding remains of ancient mammals in Paleocene, Eocene, and Miocene rocks that had long been declared barren of fossils by other paleontologists.

When Professor Ronald DeFord began his extensive mapping of the geology of the Tierra Vieja, or Rimrock country in Trans-Pecos Texas, Wilson seized the opportunity to obtain fossil vertebrates from well-documented stratigraphic contexts and to obtain radiometric dates for the fossiliferous deposits. In cooperation with Steve Clabaugh, Fred McDowell, and a number of students, Wilson was able to establish an Eocene faunal sequence in that region. One of the more interesting discoveries was the finding of a well-preserved skull of an early primate, which he named Rooneyia after the rancher on whose land the fossil was found. Because of its excellent preservation, well-established age, and Old World affinities, it attracted worldwide attention. All told, Wilson’s research produced some 24 scholarly publications on the fossil vertebrates from the Big Bend region.

During the 1970s Wilson, with parties of colleagues and students, was the first to collect fossils from the still poorly accessible drainage of Alamo de Cesario Creek in the Agua Fria country, north of Big Bend National Park. The sequence of Eocene faunas he recovered, and accompanying radiometric age determinations, allowed useful correlations between the Vieja and the National Park, and correlative rocks to the north in Wyoming and Montana.

One of Wilson’s most important contributions to vertebrate paleontology was the establishment of the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory at The University of Texas at Austin. This involved the merger of three separate collections and acquisition of proper storage, staffing, laboratory space, equipment, and technicians for the care, preparation and study of the fossils. This has resulted in one of the preeminent research collections of fossil vertebrates available for study in the U.S.

Wilson was an American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) distinguished lecturer for 1960–61 and an American Geological Institute (AGI) visiting lecturer, 1960–63. He was a member of the Texas Academy of Science, the Society of Economic Paleontologist and Mineralogists, Society for the Study of Evolution, the Geological Society of America, Paleontological Society, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was a charter member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (president, 1952). In October 2000, he was awarded the highest honor of the society, the Romer-Simpson Medal, for his many contributions to vertebrate paleontology.