Some Biogeographers, Evolutionists and Ecologists:
Chrono-Biographical Sketches

Matthew, William Diller (Canada-United States 1871-1930)
vertebrate paleontology, zoogeography


Matthew was both the most important vertebrate paleontologist and the most influential zoogeographical theorist of his time. His clarifications of mammalian phylogeny (most famously, of horses) are still respected today, for he was a careful worker with training in field geology practices that usefully complemented his knowledge of comparative morphology. Some of Matthew's views were based on those of Alfred Russel Wallace: for example, his expressed doubt as to the existence of advanced extraterrestrial life, and a predilection for using dispersal to explain existing distribution patterns. Matthew was completely devoted to the study of mammals, and this emphasis eventually proved unwise when he attempted to dwell on it to debunk competing theories--for example, Wegener's continental drift hypothesis, which postulated changes that had been initiated before the main recent (Tertiary) radiation of mammalian types. On the basis of the evidence he had available to him, Matthew attempted to argue that vertebrates in general had originated in the climatically more challenging northern zones, and then dispersed in waves to fill the niches of more southerly-lying lands (this perspective is set out in his most famous work, "Climate and Evolution"). This idea has proved to be in substantial error; still, his unsurpassed knowledge of vertebrate paleofaunas and ability to closely argue the evidence convinced many (including protegés such as George Gaylord Simpson) to become followers. The theory was in fact able to maintain itself as the standard explanation until the plate tectonics revolution of the 1960s. Matthew was also an influential museum administrator and an effective science popularizer--but here too he was responsible for a number of museum display strategies that, while innovative for their time, sometimes gave oversimplified impressions, and which in recent years have fallen into disfavor.

Life Chronology

--born in Saint John, New Brunswick, on 19 February 1871.
--1889: completes his bachelor's degree at the University of New Brunswick
--1889: moves to United States; begins graduate work at the Columbia University School of Mines
--1894: master's degree, Columbia University
--1894: studies vertebrate paleontology under Henry Fairfield Osborn
--1895: Ph.D., Columbia University
--1895-1898: works as assistant to Osborn at the Dept. of Vertebrate Paleontology, American Museum of Natural History
--1898-1902: assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology, American Museum of Natural History
--1902-1910: associate curator of vertebrate paleontology, American Museum of Natural History
--1911-1925: curator of vertebrate paleontology, American Museum of Natural History
--1913: publishes his Evolution of the Horse
--1915: publishes the first edition of "Climate and Evolution" in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences
--1922-1927: curator-in-chief, Division I, American Museum of Natural History
--1924: takes part in field expedition to Texas with George Gaylord Simpson
--1926: publishes "The Evolution of the Horse" in the Quarterly Review of Biology
--1927: made a fellow of the Royal Society of London
--1927: publishes "The Evolution of the Mammals in the Eocene" in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London
--1927-1930: professor of paleontology, University of California, Berkeley
--1928: publishes his Outline and General Principles of the History of Life
--dies at Berkeley, California, on 24 September 1930.

For Additional Information, See:

--American National Biography, Vol. 14 (1999).
--Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 12 (1933).
--Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, Vol. 42(1) (1931): 55-94.
--A Review of William Diller Matthew's Contributions to Mammalian Paleontology (American Museum Novitates No. 473) (1931).
--Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 12(3) (1931): 189-194.
--Science, Vol. 72(1878) (1930): 642-645.
--Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 130 (1986): 453-474.
--William Diller Matthew, Paleontologist: The Splendid Drama Observed (1992).

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Copyright 2005 by Charles H. Smith. All rights reserved.

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