Bill Cobban

This blog was originally established as one of the broader impact foci of ongoing collections management grants. The goal of one of these grants, from IMLS, is to digitize our holdings from the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway (WIS). In that regard, we would be entirely remiss if we did not devote commentary to the life of arguably the most influential WIS researcher, the late Will Aubrey “Bill” Cobban. While a single blog post in no way encapsulates the influence he had on our knowledge of the WIS, we still wish to recognize his impact.

Photo of Bill Cobban from the Denver Post obituary.
Photo of Bill Cobban from the Denver Post obituary.

Since his passing on April 21, the paleontologic community has been abuzz with the life and accomplishments of Dr. Cobban. His obituary can be found here, and a brief summary of his contributions and honors is presented here. Dr. Cobban was a Montana native born in 1915. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Montana, and completed his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1949. In 1948, Dr. Cobban began his seventy-year career with the United States Geological Survey.

His list of contributions is truly impressive, including 330 papers in which he named 35 genera and 215 species of ammonites and 18 species of inoceramid bivalves. Four genera of ammonites (Cobbanites, Cobbanoceras, Cobbanoscaphites, and Billcobbanoceras), one genus of plant (Cobbania), and 17 species of ammonites, bivalves, crabs, belemnites, gastropods, and crinoids have been named after him. He is responsible for establishing nearly all of the Late Cretaceous ammonite zones of the WIS, the standard biostratigraphic zonation for the Western Interior recognized by researchers around the world. Throughout his incredible career Dr. Cobban was the recipient of many honors, including the Meritorious Service Award and the Distinguished Service Award, the two highest career honors granted by the U. S. Department of the Interior.

Our own Dr. James E. Fox, Emeritus Professor, knew Dr. Cobban well. Jim recounted Bill’s career briefly, and still speaks with admiration of the man and his work. While working at the USGS in Denver in the early 70s, Jim made countless trips to Bill’s office, and Bill was always willing to help out with identifications and input. Jim considered himself to be lucky to have called Bill his friend, and stayed in contact with him throughout the years. Jim still has a number of publications that Bill sent him regularly, signed, and accompanied by personal cover letters.

Outcrop containing dark shale of the Frontier Formation at base (Wyoming Geological Survey photo).
Outcrop of sand and shale of the Frontier Formation (Wyoming Geological Survey photo).

Jim told a great story about a field trip he attended with Bill Cobban and Al Merewether in 1970. Jim was finishing his doctoral work at the University of Wyoming and was invited to accompany them to his study area in the Laramie and Hanna basin. There, they visited a steeply dipping exposure of Upper Cretaceous Frontier Formation along a railroad cut. Bill pointed to a nondescript stratum amidst several feet of dark shale, and stated that three complete ammonite range zones were lost in the unconformity represented by that horizon. Jim was struck at not only the ability to recognize a period of non-deposition in a uniform sedimentary sequence, but at the profound utility of the biostratigraphic zonation that Bill had developed and implemented.

Jim ended with an extremely complimentary and touching description of Dr. Cobban, who was

“…a shy, quiet, very bright gentleman with the highest degree of professionalism. His answers to questions were always succinct and factual. While not a professor, he was always more than willing to share his knowledge with those who were interested.”

Dr. Cobban, you will be missed…

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