Scott, William Berryman

Scott, William Berryman 1877 (1858-1947), the eminent vertebrate paleontologist who was Blair Professor of Geology from 1886 to 1930, spent almost all of his long, happy, productive, and rather secluded life in Princeton. He was born a few months before the Lincoln-Douglas debates and about two years before the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the son of a Presbyterian minister (who died before William's fourth birthday) and the grandson of the theologian, Charles Hodge 1815, who was often called ``The Presbyterian Pope.''

Throughout his life Scott demonstrated an apparent but unintended aloofness and formalness that, he later realized, resulted in part from his lack as a child of comradeship outside of his close-knit family, which was strongly dedicated to God, hard work, educational eminence, and an unwavering conviction of its own quality. A frail and sickly child, Scott became precociously devoted to books. He expected to follow the family tradition of life as a cleric, but instead became a noted and much-honored scientist.

As a Princeton student, researcher and teacher, he discovered and studied many fossil vertebrates, and thereby helped initiate and develop important theories that tested and expanded some of Darwin's ideas about organic evolution. Scott's life interests in geology and in religion are reflected in a verse about him in the Faculty Song:

``Here's to Bill Geology Scott,
He has a carboniferous knot,
He tells us how the earth was made,
And how the Lord his sidewalks laid.''

He was ``Professor Princeton'' to the many students who enjoyed his famous lectures in which he combined scientific discourse with salty tales of his graduate study abroad and his expeditions to the American West. At his retirement in 1930, after half a century of teaching, many alumni voiced regret that students would no longer learn science from his stories of ``The Johnstown Flood'' and ``Chief Red Cloud's Arrest.''

As a boy of nine, Scott read proof on Charles Hodge's book ``What is Darwinism?'' and agreed with his grandfather's conclusion that ``Darwinism is Atheism''; but he changed his mind during his early professional years when the ideological tussle between Darwin and Genesis was at its height, compelling commitment or compromise. Scott chose compromise. President McCosh, whom Scott regarded as one of the greatest of teachers, conferred with Scott in writing The Religious Aspects of Evolution (1888), in which he declared that he was ``in favor of evolution properly limited,'' because it is ``the method by which God works.''

For his descendants Scott wrote his memoirs, parts of which were published in Some Memories of a Palaeontologist (Princeton University Press, 1939). These charming accounts are a valuable source of information about his family and ancestors, his education, travels, friends, publications, University politics, and philosophies.

In his Memories Scott said that no account of his life would be complete that omitted the tale of how he, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Francis Speir (called ``the triumvirate'' by their awed classmates of 1877), after a swim in the canal on a hot June day in 1876, decided to make a fossil-collecting trip to the Far West. The expedition that resulted from this historic decision (encouraged by Professor Guyot and financed by the trustees) marked the beginning of the scientific careers of Scott and Osborn and of the acquisition for Princeton of what has become one of the finest collections of vertebrate fossils. Later, Osborn was largely responsible for the development of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the growth of its fossil collection into the largest in the world.

The famous Princeton Patagonian Expeditions (1896-1899) were originated and financed by one of Scott's assistants, John B. Hatcher, who developed many new ways of collecting fossils in the field and, in the Princeton Museum of Natural History, devised new methods of exhibiting them. Scott spent most of his time on his own research and had little interest in developing the Museum or in training graduate students. These tasks were assumed by William J. Sinclair, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1904, and later by Glenn L. Jepsen, who joined it in 1930. Sinclair instituted the William Berryman Scott Fund for research in vertebrate paleontology and secured contributions to it. A principal donor was Childs Frick '05. Sinclair willed his own estate to Princeton for the Sinclair Professorship of Vertebrate Paleontology as a means of continuing the tradition of research and teaching in that subject begun by Scott in the 1880s.

A measure of Scott's influence on students of paleontology is found in more than a dozen species of fossil mammals in different genera named ``scotti'' in his honor. Later these evidences of respect by younger men gave him as much pleasure as his many medals and honorary degrees.

Although Scott was proud of having Benjamin Franklin, Charles Hodge, and other personages in his ancestral line, he maintained that his favorite family tree was that of the fossil camels. From the study of such fossil phylogenies, he concluded that they are not satisfactorily accounted for by the Darwinian factor of natural selection; and many scientists now agree.

Scott's splendid long career exemplifies the dedicated life of a gifted teacher in a privileged University environment, the way a man and an organization make reciprocal contributions to each other's welfare, and the ways they change. On Scott's eightieth birthday at a big party his colleagues had for him in Procter Hall, he made an observation about a fossil that was strongly contrary to a statement he had made on the previous day. When reminded of this he said, ``Yes, but that was yesterday.''

Glenn L. Jepsen


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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