In memoriam: Frank Whitmore

I learned last night that paleontologist Frank C. Whitmore, Jr. passed away on Sunday at the age of 96. He was the last surviving charter member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, having attended at the inaugural meeting as a graduate student in 1940. More than any other person, Frank was responsible for my interest in marine mammals.

In 1989, after my sophomore year in college I spent summer break as an intern at VMNH, which had only become a state agency the year before. I had intended to work with Nick Fraser on Triassic material, but it turned out that he hadn’t yet arrived from Scotland, and I was left without a project. Looking for something to do, I went to invertebrate paleontology curator Buck Ward, who handed me some boxes of bones that had been donated to the museum and told me to try to identify them.

It turned out that most of the bones were either proboscidean or cetacean. I identified as many as I could, but after a month I was still left with a bunch of bones that were a mystery to me. Buck told me to drive the bones to the Washington and show them to Frank Whitmore, who had recently retired from the USGS but still had an office at the Smithsonian.

When I met Frank he was past 70, and his eye site was starting to fail. To my amazement, he started pulling bones out of my box and identifying them by touch! We spent the morning identifying the VMNH specimens and looking at other fossils in the USNM collection. Frank, Clayton Ray, and Dave Bohaska then took me to lunch, where Frank said something like “We heard you’re looking for a senior thesis project. We talked about some possibilities and think that looking at squalodonts might be a good choice. They have a lot of charisma.” We spent the rest of the afternoon looking at squalodonts, and by the end of the day I had my project: preparing and describing a huge squalodont skeleton from northern Virginia that had been donated to the Smithsonian in the 1970’s.

As I was driving home, it occurred to me that, retired or not, a well-known and busy paleontologist had just give up an entire day to an undergraduate student he had never met. This had a profound influence on me, and is one of the reasons so many of my projects have student collaborators. Years later, I found out that early in his career Frank had a similar experience when he met Princeton paleontologist W. B. Scott.

The next summer I interned with Frank at the Smithsonian, working on the giant squalodont. I eventually made that specimen the holotype of the new species Squalodon whitmorei, named in Frank’s honor.

The next year, I had entered graduate school at LSU, and while excavating at Carmel Church I took a day to go to the Smithsonian to visit Frank and describe to him my plans for a dissertation topic, which was going to involve looking at many thousands of Oligocene and Miocene odontocete specimens from all over the world. He listened patiently to my proposal, and then gave me some of the best advise I’ve ever received, along the lines of: “That sounds like an exciting project. However, your goal is to graduate, so you might want to consider narrowing this down to something you can actually finish. What you just described will take an entire career to complete.”

Frank was unassuming, and I only found out about many of his honors and accomplishments from others. For many years he was the head of the Military Geology Unit of the USGS, and was involved in the reconstruction of Japan after World War II. He also conducted surveys of Korea, including the port of Inchon. A few years later that data was used to plan the Allied landing at Inchon that turned the tide of the Korean War. He received the United States highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom, for his work in the Military Geology Unit.

During his career he worked on a variety of topics in paleontology, another way in which he has influenced me. In addition to his surveying work, he studied ostracodes and a variety of terrestrial mammals in addition to his marine mammal work. His study of terrestrial mammals in Panama helped to demonstrate that prior to the Pliocene Panama had been part of North America rather than South America. In the 1960’s he conducted excavations at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky, the site where Lewis and Clark collected Pleistocene bones for Thomas Jefferson. His work was instrumental in convincing Kentucky to turn Big Bone Lick into a state park (and Frank was named an Honorable Kentucky Colonel for his work).

I continued to correspond with Frank while in graduate school and after coming to VMNH, and would see him occasionally during visits to the Smithsonian or at other events. In 2002 VMNH awarded him the Jefferson Medal, and at the awards ceremony he had a chance to examine some of the specimens from Carmel Church:

Frank will be missed, but he has left an impressive legacy in both his scientific accomplishments and the vast numbers of students he has influenced over the years.

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7 Responses to In memoriam: Frank Whitmore

  1. Mike says:

    I am glad that he was there for you at the beginning of your career.
    Your tribute not only tells of how great he was as a Paleontologist,
    but also as an incredible human being.

    I remember you telling us about him the first time we were in the pit at Carmel Church.

    I know of someone that seems to be following in his footsteps.
    That has taken time from his very busy schedule to help others understand and
    love paleo like he does. I believe Mr. Whitmore would be proud.

    I am sorry for the loss of such a great man to you and the world.
    I Thank him for helping make an impression on you, so that you can
    in turn make great impressions on others as you do on a daily basis.

    Mike and Josh
    God bless Mr. Whitmore, his family, & friends

  2. Brian Beatty says:

    Thank you for this, Butch. I only had a few short memories with Frank, and you pay a significant and meaningful tribute to him. He is one of those giants on whose shoulders we stand, and what a gentle giant he was. My best memory of him is of him and Clayton getting excited like schoolboys about desmostylians when I told them that was my thesis topic 10 years ago. They were so excited, and I hope you and I can keep that joy and wonder when we are their age. He loved life and reminded us of why this is so worth doing. Getting others involved and excited, especially students, is one of his most important legacies, and it certainly continues in you.
    Thank you, my friend.

  3. Frank Whitmore was my step-grandfather. When I was young, he took my brothers and I on a behind-the-scenes tour at the Natural History Museum. I fondly remember the rows and rows of bone fragments and the patient manner he explained them in. My brothers and I have always treasured his vast knowledge and playful sense of humor. Decades later, I returned there with my children today and paid a silent tribute to him as I walked under the great whales. While I may not know their scientific names, they will always mean more to me as a symbol of Frank. Thanks for writing this touching piece. I believe we met at the dinner pictured above!
    Best wishes,
    Katie Yablonski

  4. George Charles Fonger says:


    I met Dr. Whitmore in early 1970s, had some cetacean and seal material from the St. Mary’s formation. I donated the material and kept intouch with him by mail and phone. Latter in the 1970s I interned with him and prepared a large cetothere which numerous bones were crushed. He mentored me and one thing he said you are a perfectionist and not fossil is perfect. In the early 1980’s I happened to call another friend and fossil collector Wally Ashby and asked if he would like to get out and collect he declined because of a nasty flu. I headed down the Calvert County and walked up the beach finding a few neat items. I walked down to the cliffs and noticed a yellowish brown object which I thought was the shell of a clam that looks like asbesdtos and walked on. On the way back I examined the object again tapping it with an oyster knife lightly. It was bone so I dug the specimen out wrapped it up and brought it back home. I started to prepare it it turned out to be some sort I thought maybe a dog. I then contacted Dr. Whitmore and I asked if I could stop by his residence and let him get a look at this. I brought a modern day dog skull with me and he opened up the box and said you have made Dr. Clayton Ray’s day. He then did not tell me what it was so I used by systematic biology training and I then said seal? He said yes.

    He encouraged people and was a giant in his field and so well respected

  5. JETB says:

    Starting at 17:58…same person?

  6. altondooley says:

    Yes! In Episode 4.

  7. George says:

    I fondly think of the kindness and Dr. Whitmore’s intellect and interest in encouraging others both professional and novice to explore and observe and help and teach others with encouragement and patience.

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