Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927)

In the public domain; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

By: Megan Sprague and Richard D. Landzettel

GO521 History of Geology

Emporia State University

April 23, 2013


Charles Doolitle Walcott was an exceptional figure in the history of paleontology and geology. The purpopse of this webpage is to show his background, his accomplishments and the period of time in which he lived.



Charles Doolittle Walcott was born in New York Mills, New York on March 31, 1850. He was the youngest of four children, and his father died when he was just two years old. He grew up collecting fossils in the Hudson River Valley giving him an interest in science. Though he attended several formal schools, Walcott never completed his formal education. Walcott turned his love of fossils into a successful business. He gave up his business to pursue scientific goals and happened across Colonel E. Jewett a geologist and paleontologist, who gave Walcott advice and lent him some books.

In the public domain; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

In 1871 He tried to sell his collection of fossils to Louis Agassiz and made arrangements to attend Harvard under Agassiz, however the sale and arrangements fell though when Agassiz died shortly after the sale. He then went to work for the Albany State Museum as the assistant of a geologist named James Hall in 1876. Walcott secured an appointment in 1879 to the US Geological Survey. Walcott was named an honorary curator of the department of fossil invertebrates at the Smithsonian. In 1894 Walcott became the Director of the USGS and was also in charge of the paleontological collections at the Smithsonian’s US National Museum.

In the public domain; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

In 1907 Walcott became the Secretary of the Smithsonian Museum, leaving the USGS behind. He worked at the Smithsonian until his death on February 9th, 1927 after suffering an apoplectic stroke. He died two days before the Conference on the Future of the Smithsonian he had planned to host.

In the public domain; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Historical Context

Walcott was born into a world on the verge of great changes, of wars and scientific advances. Despite not finishing his schooling, he was able to go from being a simple hardware store clerk to one of North America’s greatest geologists and paleontologists. He was the Director of the USGS for 13 years and was the fourth Secretary of the Smithsonian for 20 years; during that time he unfortunately applied President Wilson’s Jim Crow regulations to the facilities. The Star Spangled Banner was entered into the collections during tenure. He even allowed the Bureau of War Risk Insurance to use the current National Museum of Natural History as office space during the First World War. During his career he was able to hold many positions at the same time and still accomplish more than most scientific professionals today.

In the public domain; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.


Walcott is most known for the Burgess Shale, but he contributed many other things as well.

Burgess shale

The Burgess Shale is arguably Walcott’s greatest discovery. He discovered the fossil riddled layer of Cambrian rock near Field, British Columbia in 1909. It takes its name from the nearby Burgess Pass. The fossils found here interested him so much that he ignored some of his duties for a few years. In fact he spent five seasons there personally. They discovered over 70 genera and over 130 species. The Burgess Shale is so full of Cambrian fossils that even today there are discoveries of new species.

In the public domain; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

In the public domain; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Grand Canyon

Just after joining the USGS he was sent to study the Grand Canyon area. He determined the boundary between the Permian and Triassic strata, and that the Chuar and Unkar series are pre-Cambrian and discovered the first know Devonian strata in the area.

Grand Canyon, Arizona, Property of Richard D. Landzettel all rights reserved.


Walcott wrote many geologic and paleontological books and papers. A large portion of these works are on his own discoveries in the Burgess Shale biota. One of his more notable works is entitled Cambrian Brachiopoda which is two books in length. The first book is the complete text and the second is a book of plates that is nearly if not the same thickness as the text.

Hydrographic Branch

In 1902 Walcott was allowed to create the Hydrographic Branch of the USGS. Today this branch is known as the Water Resources Division.


Walcott supported Darwin’s theory of evolution and had the Smithsonian publish a statement of that fact during the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial.

The Airplane?

When one thinks of Charles D. Walcott they think of the Burgess Shale not airplanes. Believe it or not though he tried to help create the airplane. On March 21, 1898, he and Samuel Pierpont Langley had a conversation about creating a man-carrying flying machine, but Langley didn’t have enough money. Walcott liked the idea so much that he called President McKinley, who directed him to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and the Acting Secretary of War. They liked the idea as well, and ordered Langley to construct the airplanes for the Spanish-American War. Unfortunately none of Langley’s creations were able to fly.

Engines of Our Ingenuity, University of Houston


Charles Doolittle Walcott was a self-educated, self-made man from humble beginnings. His love of fossils led him to a successful career with the US Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Institute. He is most known for his discovery of the Burgess Shale, but he had many other accomplishments of great value.


"Charles Doolittle Walcott, 1850-1927." Smithsonian Institution Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2013.

"Charles Doolittle Walcott." The 1911 Classic Encyclopedia. N.p., 6 Sept. 2006. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.

Yochelson, Ellis L. "Charles Doolittle Walcott 1850-1927." National Academy of Sciences, n.d. Web. 07 Apr. 2013.

Yochelson, Ellis L. "Rock Stars From Farmer-Laborer to Famous Leader Charles D. Walcott 1850-1927." GSA Today 39 (n.d.): 471-540. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.

Image References

"Category:Charles Doolittle Walcott." - Wikimedia Commons. N.p., 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 07 Apr. 2013.

"Celebrating 100 Years." SI NMNH Centennial. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.

Leinhard, John H. "No. 1342: Wright and Langley." Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.

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