Palmer, Allison R. (Pete) (earth scientist)


(1927- ) American Paleontologist

Allison R. (Pete) Palmer has really had three successful careers in one: in government, in academia, and in the premier professional society in geology. The common thread through these various positions is his interest in early Paleozoic invertebrates and especially trilobites as well as Cambrian biostratigraphy. It was on a field trip in his junior year of college that he found his first trilobite fossil and he was hooked. He has been affectionately called “Mr. Trilobite” and “The Trilo-bite Master” because of this interest. He started out studying Cambrian rocks in the western United States where he was able to subdivide the stratigraphy based upon fossil successions. As a result, the Basin and Range Province went from obscurity to containing the type locale for everything from Cambrian seawater compositions through sequence stratigraphy and rates of animal evolution. Naturally, he also studied the trilobites. Palmer then started a major project to identify trilobites with Laurentian (the name for North America during the Paleozoic) affinities on a worldwide basis. He looked at trilobites in Europe, Russia, Australia, North Africa, Argentina, and China, in addition to more examples in the eastern part of North America. This work was done during the time of the emergence of plate tectonics. His worldwide correlations of trilobites were of great interest to the plate tectonic modelers who used them to prove and disprove their reconstructions. His work on Argentinean trilobites has led to a major revolution in the reconstruction of the ancient supercontinent of Rodinia, which is still being developed today. In all, he is responsible for defining hundreds of new species and genera and has described fossils from Alaska to Antarctica, from Cambrian trilobites to Miocene insects. An example of a paper from this work is “Search for the Cambrian World.” As a result of his research career, he has been called “the quintessential American paleontologist.”

Palmer continued his studies in academia, especially with regard to the importance of bios-tratigraphy, which owes much of its development to him. He also helped train a new generation of paleontologists. However, his work with the Geological Society of America earned him even greater fame. He spearheaded a mammoth task of summarizing the state of knowledge on all of North American geology in a project called Decade of North American Geology (DNAG). After that he became a spokesperson for geology. He wrote a regular column entitled “What My Neighbor Should Know About Geology” in the magazine GSA Today to extol the virtues of geology and to show how it affects everyday life. In this role, he also appeared in a major role on the “Planet Earth” series from the Public Broadcasting System. It is safe to say that the effort and effectiveness that he put into his outreach efforts were equal in stature to his paleontological achievements. Both stand out as real contributions to the science.

Pete Palmer was born on January 9, 1927, in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He attended the Pennsylvania State University in College Park, where he began by studying meteorology but found his true calling and earned a bachelor of science degree in geology in 1949. For his graduate studies, he attended the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and earned a Ph.D. in 1950. It was there that he met and married Patricia Richardson in 1949. They have five children. During his graduate studies he worked as a science aide for the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology but his first permanent position was with the U.S. Geological Survey, which he accepted upon graduation in 1950. He was a Cambrian paleontologist and stratigrapher there until 1966 when he joined the faculty at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He served as chair of the department from 1974 to 1977. In 1980, Palmer left Stony Brook to become the centennial science program coordinator for the Geological Society of America in Boulder, Colorado. He was also the coordinator of educational programs from 1988 to 1991. He retired from the Geological Society of America in 1993 to become an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he remains in active research today.

Pete Palmer has led a very productive career authoring some 137 scientific articles in international journals, professional volumes, and governmental reports. He produced nine major monographs. All totaled, he has more than 2,200 printed pages to his credit. Several of these articles are seminal works on Cambrian paleoecology, trilobite morphology, and related studies that appear in top journals like Science. In recognition of his contributions to geology, he has received several prestigious honors and awards. He received the Charles D. Walcott Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, the Distinguished Service Medal from the Geological Society of America, and the Paleontological Society Medal (United States).

Palmer has been very active in terms of service to the profession. He has served as president for the Institute for Cambrian Studies since 1984 and before that for the Cambrian Subcommittee for the International Stratigraphic Committee (1972-1984). He was president of the Paleonto-logical Society (United States) in 1983 as well. He served on numerous committees for all of these organizations as well as the Geological Society of America.

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