Leonard Richard Wilson

Leonard Richard Wilson

Leonard Richard Wilson was born in Superior, Wisconsin July 23, 1906. He died at his home in Norman, Oklahoma, July 15, 1998 at the age of 92. He was the elder of two sons of Ernest and Sara Jane Cooke Wilson. He is survived by his wife Marian De Wilde whom he married September 1, 1930. Their son, Richard Graham Wilson, of West Fork, Arkansas, and daughter Marcia Graham Wilson Roe of Norman, Oklahoma, 11 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren also survive.Richard (Dick) Wilson was proud of his roots as a Viking. He traced his forebears back through three centuries to Viking communities in the Orkney Islands and Thurso, Scotland, which borders the strait that separates the Orkneys from the mainland of Scotland, and into northern England.

Richard grew up in Superior, Wisconsin. There, a physician neighbour, Dr George Conklin, first introduced Dick to the great world of the natural sciences. Conklin was an expert on bryophytes and was curator of the Sullivant Moss Society’s worldwide collections of mosses and liverworts. Dr Conklin also conducted research on freshwater sponges. Wilson later utilized these invertebrates in his studies of Wisconsin’s freshwater lakes. Conklin also led Wilson through scouting to become the first Eagle Scout in Superior.

Dick had a paper route that included several of the faculty members of Superior State Teachers College (now University of Wisconsin – Superior). Prof. J. A. Merrill, who taught geology and geography at the college, was one of his customers. Merrill had studied at Harvard and his doctoral thesis was on a Cretaceous problem in Texas. Merrill, who had also published the first paper on hystrichosphaerids in the United States, taught Dick to recognize those microorganisms. Wilson’s fascination with these grew through his years as he worked with freshwater lakes and later whenever he examined marine rock samples.

Richard enjoyed outdoor activities as a boy, including skiing cross-country. He later became a down-hill skier and broke his back preparing for the 1928 Olympic tryouts in ski-jumping. He liked biking and he once took a one-thousand-mile tour in England. Also in college, he joined the fencing team and later he coached fencing at Coe College.

This broad background in botany and geology impressed the various professors with whom he studied at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He became field assistant to Norman C. Fassett (systematic botany). He also caught the attention of William H. Twenhofel (geology and sedimentology), F. T. Thwaites (glacial geology) and E. A. Birge (zoology and limnology). Professor Birge, who was director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, engaged Wilson to assist in some of his own research on biology of freshwater lakes. Later, as president of the University of Wisconsin, Birge, who was then studying the physics of light as it affects plant growth in lakes, became a lifelong friend and continued some research with Wilson for several years.

Wilson’s family desired that he should have some education in England, so he went to Leeds University in Yorkshire for his junior year. Leeds is only about 100 km south of his grandparents’ home at Stockton-on-Tees, England, near Newcastle. There he studied with W. H. Burrell, director of the University Herbarium. Burrell has been credited with publishing the first paper on pre-Pleistocene palynology in England, 1924. During Wilson’s year at Leeds, Gunnar Erdtman, Swedish pioneer in pollen analysis, presented several lectures there which initiated Burrell’s and Wilson’s interest in the palynology of peat and coal. This interest grew rapidly in Wilson’s mind and was applied first in his masters’ and doctoral research on Wisconsin’s peat deposits. Fred Thwaites and Norman Fassett directed Wilson’s study of the vegetation and geology of the Two Creeks Forest bed, which became an internationally recognized focal point for Late Wisconsinan glacial deposits.

Wilson’s doctoral dissertation, an analysis of plant microfossils in 10 bogs, Douglas County, Wisconsin was used to determine the history of the several stages in the shorelines of the Nipissing Great Lakes and Lakes Algonquin and Duluth. This information enabled Wilson to demonstrate several stages of plant succession over the glacial terrain and the vegetation’s control of soil type, certain other edaphic factors, and effects of fire. He also prepared another extensive report, equivalent to another Ph.D. dissertation, on lake development and plant succession in the Highland District, Muskellunge Moraine, and the outwash area of Vilas County, Wisconsin.

Wilson was instructor to professor of geology at Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1934-1947; professor and head of the Geology and Mineralogy Department, University of Massachusetts, 1947-1956; professor of geology, Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University; geologist, Oklahoma Geological Survey 1957-1977; professor of geology, University of Oklahoma 1957-1962; Curator of Micropaleontology and Paleobotany, Sam Noble Museum of Science and History (now Oklahoma Museum of Natural History); and the George Lynn Cross Research Professor of Geology and Geophysics, University of Oklahoma, 1969 – 1977, when he became professor emeritus of geology and curator emeritus of micropaleontology and paleobotany. Dick was Melhaupt Scholar, Ohio State University 1939- 1940 working on pollen-analysis of Ohio prairies and woodlands of the Postglacial Xerothermic Interval with the eminent ecologist, Prof. E. N. Transeau of Ohio State University. He was director of the Greenland Ice Cap project, “Mint Julep”, 1952-1953. He worked with Robert Shrock at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology field camp in Nova Scotia during the summers of 1950-1955. Wilson also applied his knowledge of biostratigraphy and palynology to professional contract work for several oil companies in United States and South America, 1945 to 1972.

Wilson was a serious, dedicated teacher. He demanded much from his students in reports and notebooks. He gave very tough examinations over reading material and identification of the age, source, and history of various rocks and samples of rocks. He also included a great deal of botanical information in his geology lectures and field trips. Dr Rudolph Edmund, at the fiftieth anniversary of the National Association of Geology Teachers (NAGT) in a presentation to Wilson in 1988 wrote, “L. R. Wilson championed the field as the best way to teach earth processes …. students followed him into the field, into the lab, and into research.” Wilson had been one of five founders of the Association of College Geology Teachers in 1938, the forerunner of the National Association of Geology Teachers.

Wilson worked diligently with James M. Schopf in the preparation of the landmark paper “An annotated synopsis of Paleozoic fossil spores and the definition of generic groups”, published by the Illinois State Geological Survey in 1944. In that paper, which was a major factor in bringing order to the presentation of palynological information of pre-Pleistocene palynological studies in North America, they elucidated seven guiding principles for classifying and defining the then-existing genera of fossil pollen and spores.

Wilson, together with one of his former part-time students, Ruth Webster, as an assistant, completed an exhaustive study of the palynology of the strata in two wells in Texas for Carter Oil Company (early subsidiary of Exxon Production and Research Company). These analyses, with over 9500 photomicrographs, were published in five volumes. Distribution of these tomes was limited to a few specialists and museums. However, this extended study contributed importantly to the application of palynological techniques to the exploration for oil by several companies immediately following World War II.

Professor Wilson directed about 50 masters and doctoral theses. Many of those students constituted the nuclei of the staffs of several oil company palynological laboratories. Several became teachers, some worked for various geological surveys, and a few entered other areas of geological research, exploration or administration. Wilson published about 200 research reports, notes and abstracts.

Wilson received numerous honours and awards. He was a Fellow in the Geological Society of America (GSA) and a member of the Botanical Society of America (BSA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for over 50 years. He was elected as an Honorary Member of the American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists (AASP), founding member of the National Association of Geology Teachers (NAGT), and Erdtman International Medalist for Palynology from the Paleontological Society of India. He was a longtime member of various other societies and several state academies of science. Wilson served on the Commission Internationale de Microflora du Paleozoic, and the editorial board of Micropaleontology. He was elected to the Order of Mark Twain on the basis of research in Greenland and Pleistocene to Recent deposits in North America.

He was a member and sometime president of the Oklahoma Chapter of the Society of Sigma Xi and the Oklahoma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa honorary scholastic fraternity. He was adviser to the University of Massachusetts chapter of the honorary geologic fraternity, Sigma Gamma Epsilon.

Wilson’s role as an educator was outstanding. His contributions to application of palynology to exploration for oil, and interpretation of environments of deposition of ancient sedimentary rocks have been preeminent. He was a gentleman of high character and scholarly pursuits. He was an indefatigable teacher and firm disciplinarian in classroom, laboratory, and field studies, and a pioneer in several areas of his research. He continued to publish short papers almost to the time of his death. He was a true “Viking” through 65 years of the highest order of professional contribution to teaching and research in biological and geological sciences.

He was the major player in the rise of palynological science in the middle of the 20th Century.

Aureal T. Cross
Department of Geological Sciences
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan, MI 48824, USA

Note: This article appeared in CAP Newsletter 21(2):14-17, 1998.