Reflections on Palynology and Paleobotany:
Conversations with Aureal T. Cross
Over the past 2½ years I have had several delightful conversations with Dr. Aureal T. (Theophilus) Cross, Professor Emeritus of both Geological Sciences and Botany at Michigan State University (MSU). Aureal offers an unique perspective of palynology and paleobotany resulting from his 65-year career as a world-class coal geologist, petroleum geologist, palynologist and paleobotanist. Aureal and his graduate students and colleagues have been exploring the palynology, paleoecology, environments of deposition and biostratigraphy of Devonian, Carboniferous, Cretaceous and Tertiary coal-bearing and black-shale sequences as well as Quaternary peat deposits. He has conducted field work in 49 of the 50 states, as well as most of the provinces of Canada and states of western Mexico. Aureal has published over 60 journal articles, 8 books, and more than 100 conference abstracts and has also edited 8 special volumes. He also served on several editorial boards, including the editorial committee of the Catalog of Fossil Spores and Pollen (43 volumes, dating from 1958 to 1985). Aureal has received numerous grants to support his research as well as been awarded several awards from professional associations.
Amazingly, at 88 years young Aureal is still very active in conducting research, writing papers, and presenting his results at national conferences. Many of his colleagues at MSU comment that he is more active than many tenure-track faculty! Considering Aureal’s remarkable contributions to palynology and related fields and that he has been a long-time member of CAP, I thought that other palynologists would enjoy “joining in” on these conversations. Written below is a summary of these conversations outlining Aureal’s accomplishments interspersed with his personal reflections. Supplemental materials for this essay come from Aureal’s vita as well as from a biography written by Dr Tom L. Phillips, Department of Plant Biology, University of Illinois.
Aureal was born on June 4, 1916 in Hancock County, Ohio, and at a young age moved to Iowa with his family. He said that growing up a dairy farm in Iowa taught him the value of patience and hard work. Aureal’s education began in a one-room school house in Iowa. He attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on a Music and History scholarship, but soon changed his academic program to a dual major in Geology and History with a minor in Music after taking a geology class from L.R. Wilson. Wilson engaged his students in the paleobotanical study of coal balls and Aureal’s first publication in 1939 was with Wilson on Pennsylvanian fossil plants from a Devonian cave deposit. This was a side project for Aureal, since his honor’s thesis, completed in 1939, involved the “Pollen Analysis of the Bottom Sediments of Crystal Lake, Vilas County, Wisconsin and the Peat of a Nearby Bog.” This thesis was later published with Wilson in 1943. Another memory of Aureal’s days at Coe College is that while on a summer geology field trip with Wilson they met the noted photographer of the American West – William H. Jackson.
After Aureal graduated from Coe College in 1939 he moved to Ohio for his graduate studies. He completed his Masters in 1941 and Ph.D. in 1943 at the University of Cincinnati under the direction of John Hobart Hoskins (1896-1957). Aureal and Hoskins published dozens of papers together in the 1940s and 1950s on the analyses of Pennsylvanian-age plants from coal balls they collected from southeastern Iowa and preserved plant fossils from the Devonian-Mississippian black shales. Their papers are benchmark contributions in late Paleozoic paleobotany.
Aureal’s contribution to the war (WWII) effort took two forms. He taught premedical U.S. Navy students at the University of Notre Dame from 1943 to 1944. For the remainder of the war he was charged with the task of searching various regions of the United States for coals of coking quality urgently needed for the war-driven steel industry. Aureal developed a quick test of coal quality by microscopy of polished surfaces and crushed-coal pieces that was adopted by steel industries within the U.S. and abroad. If that wasn’t enough, while Aureal was in West Virginia and Kentucky he would collect coal samples and describe sections by day and at night man the radio for the State Highway Patrol station! (When did he sleep?)
After the war, Aureal taught in the geology departments of the University of Cincinnati (1946 to 1949) and West Virginia University (1949 to 1957) and at the latter established a graduate program. During both appointments he spent his summers working for the state geological surveys.
In 1957, Aureal was recruited by the Pan American Petroleum Corporation (later Amoco and now BP) to seta Research Center for the company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Over the next four years he built up a large staff of palynologists, including: D.W. Engelhardt, E.A. Stanley, C. Head, C.E. Upshaw and W.B. Creath (pollen/spores analysis); A. Shaw (paleontologic data and analysis systems); R.W. Tschudy and R.M. Kosanke (consultants); and K. Brill (field work and type-locality collections). This was an exciting time to be a palynologist, Aureal tells me. Oil companies were competing for properly trained personnel and discoveries of new oil fields kept many palynologists gainfully employed. Aureal remarked that he and his staff were extremely busy in 1960-61 after Pan American discovered a major new field in Cook Inlet, Alaska. For several months pilots flew samples from Alaska to Tulsa daily and within 24-48 hours the palynologists had to examine the samples and generate a report. To do this they quickly macerated the samples with HF and an oxidant and looked at these samples still raw under a microscope, which provided a quick and dirty way to assess the oil-bearing potential of these deposits.
Aureal related another story from his time with Pan American. Both Aureal and his colleague, Hoffmeister, used part of their respective research budgets to pay for the travel expenses of Gunnar Erdtman and Robert Potonié to visit their labs. They timed this visit with the IBC meeting held in Washington in 1959 and enjoyed the time spent with these reknowned palynologists.
Aureal returned to academia in 1961 with his move to Michigan State University and has lived in East Lansing, Michigan, ever since. He came as a full professor with tenure and held positions in the Department of Geological Sciences as well as the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. He officially retired and gained emeritus status in 1986. At MSU he established one of the most comprehensive graduate training programs in paleobotany, palynology, biostratigraphy and paleoecology in North America. He trained more than 30 doctoral candidates who completed their degrees and more than half a dozen master’s students. For example, his former students include Norton G. Miller (New York State Museum), W.H. Gillespie (State Forester in Charleston, West Virginia), and Ralph E. Taggart (Professor of the Departments of Geology and Plant Biology at Michigan State University). Aureal and Ralph have worked together on supervising grad students as well as jointly researching the Miocene flora of the Northwestern US.
During the height of Aureal’s teaching career at MSU, he had as many as six fume hoods in use and 14 grad students, although usually he supervised 4 to 6 advisees. Aureal ran a tight ship. Each student was given a fume hood number and numbered beakers, test tubes and other equipment for their use and followed a lab-use schedule. Students were given access to Aureal’s articles so long as they left them on top of their desks in alphabetical order so Aureal could find an article as needed. He was very generous with his time, visiting his students’ field sites and helping them with their writing, including pulling a few all-nighters.
Aureal maintained this research productivity while teaching 9 courses/year (3 per quarter). Throughout his teaching career he insisted on teaching at least one introductory course a term/semester in addition to more advanced courses. He accepted short-term visiting positions at other universities as well as from 1963-64 was the AAPG Distinguished Lecturer (1963-1964), making 39 stops in 4 months. Aureal told me how he nearly missed giving such a talk in Calgary, because of a delay in his prior speaking engagement, and at great expense leased a plane to arrive in Calgary just in time for his luncheon talk. Aureal also taught several short courses for the USGS on coal geology, mining and reclamation from 1978 to 1984.
Aureal will be awarded the AAPG Distinguished Educator Award at the 2005 Annual Meeting in Calgary. He has received other awards and distinctions too numerous to recount. His future plans are to wrap up a couple projects, his study of fossil and sediments from the Gulf of California and palynology of the Jurassic Redbeds of the Michigan Basin. Aureal has recently transferred the entire Cross Collection from MSU, including fieldwork and laboratory preparations and 350 field books with measured sections and original notes, to the Field Museum in Chicago so that other palynologists may access his research materials for decades to come.
Aureal has said on several occasions that he is “first and foremost a teacher,” and his students attest to the quality of his mentorship. He is also a devoted husband and father (grandfather and great grandfather). In every conversation I have had with Aureal, he talks in glowing terms of his wife, Aleen – “I couldn’t have done all of this without her.” Aureal and Aleen will celebrate their 60th anniversary this March! Of final note, Aureal speaks fondly of several Canadian palynologists and remarked on more than one occasion that CAP produces the best newsletters of all of the microfossil societies!
I hope you have enjoyed this account of my conversations with Dr. Aureal Cross. I encourage other CAP members to interview other senior palynologists so that their stories may live on!
Michigan State University
Note: This article appeared in CAP Newsletter 27(2):8-11, 2004.