The 2,210th Meeting of the Society

October 20, 2006 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

Where Is That Collection?

Finding Geological Specimens for Research

J. Thomas Dutros, Jr.

Research Associate
Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution

About the Lecture

Collections of fossils, rocks, minerals, and drill cores form the basis of geological research. Today, many geologic results are digitally developed and announced on the Web to an eagerly awaiting geologic community. This sometimes presents a problem, in that the basic geologic evidence is hardly ever reexamined. This gives an important role to pattern recognition in historical and archival activity.

About the Speaker

TOM DUTRO is a Research Associate with the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. As an octogenarian earth scientist, he has become a living data bank for all the geologic lore he gathered in a half century of field and laboratory work.

Tom retired from the U.S. Geological Survey in 1994 and is now a Scientist Emeritus. Much of his research was in Alaska and the northwestern United States. His geological and biostratigraphic research earned him the Department of Interior’s Distinguished Service Award and Meritorious Service Award.

He has served as Trustee and President of the Paleontological Research Institution. He also served as President and Board Member of the Association of Earth Science Editors. He was President of the Pacific Division of the Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He is a member of the Cosmos Club.

He holds a B.A. from Oberlin College (1948). He earned his M.S. and Ph.D. from Yale. He was awarded an honorary D.Sc. from Denison University in 1993.


President William Saalbach called the 2,210th meeting to order at 8:16 pm October 20, 2006 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club.

The recording secretary read the minutes of the 2,209th meeting and they were approved.

Mr. Saalbach introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. J. Thomas Dutros, scientist emeritus of the U.S. Geological Survey. Mr. Dutros spoke on Where is That Collection? – Finding Geological Specimens for Research.

Mr. Dutros began by philosophizing about what it means to be an octogenarian in any science. One advantage, he said, if you have a modicum of memory remaining, is that you become a living data bank for all the geologic lore that has come your way from half a century of field and laboratory experience.

One problem today, now that all the evidence is on the web, is that the basic geologic evidence is hardly ever re-examined. Occasionally, one may be stricken by conscience and wonder if a new look at the real evidence, the rocks and fossils that started the whole thing, might change or confirm the original conclusions.

Who might know how to find them? Someone like Mr. Dutros, who has collected, stored, catalogued, shipped, and moved tons of geologic information. Having been around for 50 years, he remembers just about where all the specimens are. He gets questions from old colleagues, from universities who have lost there references to collections, if not their collections, and from school kids. For such people, and for the new PhD’s, many of whom have never been exposed to physical geological evidence, he is happy to share the methods he developed. Although geology only goes back to 1810 or 1805 or so, all the stuff in the Smithsonian is getting hard to find.

He described their system. They made three complete sets of 30,000 cards, for 30,000 numbered collections. One is geographically arranged, one is chronological, that is by serial number from the first one beginning in about 1850, and the third also chronological but includes references to all the written information, publications, and reports, based on the collection.

The cards work in concert with the maps. They have a large set of map files, two six-foot cabinets of maps. The maps note the cards where the information is, and the cards have the map numbers, and, equally important, the cards have the drawer number or numbers where the artifacts are stored. This is most useful, because there are six floors of drawers of specimens identified by number.

In the example he discussed, an old friend and colleague asked him to find a collection of specimens they had collected together from the Brooks Range in Alaska in 1972. This person was writing a new article on the old collection and wanted to check his synthesis. Mr. Dutros was able to find the collection and also references to all the work done on it since. He was able to add a significant bit of information contributed by a specialist who had since identified an artifact as upper Mississippian.

What do we learn from this? Maps are the key, he said. He closed with a discussion of cognitive mapping, the mental process of forming a mental representation of an individual’s own space. He said that is what he has been doing for 50 years. “Bingo!” he said. This is the connection between his work and everything else.

He invited questions.

One questioner asked about some little, fluted cylindrical rocks from central Missouri. Mr. Dutros said they almost certainly were cephalopods. He asked if the questioner had saved any. He offered to accompany him to Missouri for another look.

Another questioner asked about the age of some fossils his grandfather used to find in Oxon Hill, Maryland. Based mostly on the location, Mr. Dutros said they were most likely cretaceous, and probably around 150 million years old.

He was asked if there are any attempts to put his data on a world map so people could go to it and see what collections are available from that area. There have been all kinds of them, he said. The early ones came from interest in where you could look for oil and such. The problem is that the maps have to get more refined as the collections get bigger.

Another person observed that Google started by digitizing the Stanford Library. Is there any effort to digitize your information? Yes, he said, going back to the ‘80’s. The British Museum and the Smithsonian have been working on a digital system for years. The systems change faster than the people working on them can keep up with. The Geological Survey does have a project, digitizing as much data as they can. Three (!) people are working on it. Incoming data are very voluminous, and the people tend to be overwhelmed. Recently, funding limitations reduced the limits of the data that can be saved.

Finally, another question sent him into the details of determining just when three different genera of brachiopods docked on the western part of the continent.

Mr. Saalbach thanked our speaker. He welcomed him to a year’s membership in the Society and promised to send him a plaque commemorating his address. He made a pitch for support of the Society. He announced the next meeting. He made the parking announcement. He invited everyone to stay for the social hour. Finally, he adjourned the 2,210th meeting at 9:22 pm to the social hour.

Attendance: 37
Temperature: 14° C
Weather: Brisk and breezy, with a wonderful smell of fall in the air
Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala
Recording secretary