Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Simpson story #2

               Maybe I sensed that I would evolve into a faux historian even back in graduate school.  But when I used to visit Dr. Simpson and do his typing and filing, back in 1983-84, I occasionally would drop names and get his reactions.  And they were always candid, especially after the two martinis he had for lunch.
               One day I dropped the name of the old dinosaur paleontologist, Ned Colbert.  [Edwin H. Colbert, 1905-2001]  I knew that they had overlapped at the American Museum for many years, and that everyone who had ever spoken about him had said he was a really sweet old guy.  I figured GGS would have some stock anecdote about a drinking binge together or something.
               Instead the ambient temperature in his library dropped about five degrees, and he snarled something at me, which I swear was no more than 5% different from: “That son of a bitch fucked me over back in 1937!”
               Needless to say, even as a smarty-pants graduate student I was momentarily at a loss for words.  I also tended to develop a stutter when talking to him.  “But D-d-d-doctor Simpson,” I said, “This is 1983.  That was like almost 50 years ago.”
               He growled angrily, “That means nothing to a paleontologist,”  then smiled.  I changed the subject.

Léo Laporte properly set the fight between Colbert and Simpson in 1958, after Simpson had the tree fall on him in the Amazon. 
Laporte, L. (2000) George Gaylord Simpson: Paleontologist and Evolutionist.  New York: Columbia University Press.
John Ostrom (1928-2005) later told me that he had gone to Columbia to work with Simpson on mammals, but since Simpson was a huge celebrity academic and was never there, he moved over to Colbert instead, to do  birds and dinosaurs.
I did learn an important life lesson from that exchange, though.  Grudges are expensive to maintain and generally aren’t worth it.


  1. Comedian George Carlin once commented that while the three-martini lunch was being cracked down on, that it shouldn't affect the working man's "two-joint coffee break".

    Jon, I think you counted wrong. Quite understandable.

  2. 1983 to 1937 can't be more than 46 years.

    Probably, to George Gaylord Simpson, it felt like yesterday. You were a young graduate student, and you didn't appreciate how long term memories take precedent over short term memories when you get really old (especially if you were really smart in the first place).

    You were very fortunate to have spent that time with GGS. Kudos.