Charles Collinson

1923 to 2011
Stratigraphy and Areal Geology, Head

Charles CollinsonCharlie joinedthe Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) in 1952, retiring in 1991 after an outstanding career of research and service. Early in his career, he distinguished himself as an invertebrate paleontologist specializing in conodontbiostratigraphy. In later years, he spearheaded a major effort to better understand the sedimentary processes associated with coastal erosion along the Lake Michigan shoreline. In addition to conducting and directing research efforts, he served many national and international organizations. During his retirement, he remained active in public outreach and educational extension activities. Charlie was a friendly, affable, generous, and kind man who inspired and encouraged the many students, staff, and colleagues whosurrounded him during his 59-year association with the ISGS and the University of Illinois.

Charlie was born on 15 December 1923 in Wichita, Kansas. Orphaned at age five, Charlie and his younger brother Don were raised by their aunt and uncle in Moline, Illinois. At age 19, after graduating from Moline High School, he volunteered for the World War II Army Air Force. There he attended technical schools and trained as a bombsight and auto pilot technician. As part of his training, he participated in more than 120 flights of B-24 and B-29 heavy bombers. Test flights over Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, and Wyoming awakened a keen interest in landforms and rock types. Charlie bought a junk car and spent leave days exploring canyons, rivers, and mountains he had seen from the air. Discharged in 1946, he spent the following year in the family-owned quarry in Moline, Illinois, as a rock blaster. The fossil-rich Silurian dolomite that he was mining caught his eye, and his interest in geology continued to grow. In 1947, knowing of the geologic legacy at nearby Augustana College, he made an appointment with Professor Fritiof Fryxell who counseled Charlie on the requirements for a career in geology. With the support of the GI Bill, Charlie attended Augustana, receiving a bachelor’s degree (1949) in a remarkably short period of two and a half years. While at Augustana, he volunteered for work in the Geology Museum and quickly became a museum assistant working on vertebrate paleontology exhibits. Professor Fryxell encouraged Charlie, upon his graduation, to apply for an assistantship in geology at the University of Iowa. He was accepted and after a semester as a teaching assistant he became a research assistant to Professor Arthur K. Miller, a well-known paleontologist and a prolific researcher with many published monographs and journal articles. The assistantship was unusual in that it involved a colleague-like relationship. It was a fast-track lesson in scientific writing, manuscript preparation, publication techniques, and critical review, skills that prepared Charlie for new challenges. For his master’s degree (1950), Charlie made a comprehensive study of Mississippian cephalopods from Missouri. His doctorate degree (1952) was based on Upper Ordovician cephalopods from Baffin Island and was published in a joint memoir of the Geological Society of America covering the overall fauna and stratigraphy of Silliman’s Fossil Mount on Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island (Miller et al., 1954).

In 1952, he applied for a position as an assistant geologist in the Geological Resources Section of the ISGS. Professor Fryxell recommended Charlie, stating he “is an indefatigable worker, is unfailingly cooperative and considerate of others, and has a warm, friendly personality. Teachers and fellow students alike have held him in high regard, both at Augustana and at the University of Iowa. He is the type of man who radiates a wholesome and constructive influence.” Charlie was hired, and time would show these words to be an accurate characterization of him.

Charlie excelled at the ISGS and quickly moved up through the ranks from assistant geologist to associate geologist (1953) to geologist (1959). Following H.B. Willman’s retirement in 1969, Charlie was promoted to head of the Stratigraphy and Areal Geology Section, a position he held until his retirement in 1991.

During the 1950s and 1960s, he focused his research on the stratigraphy and paleontology of the standard reference sections for the Devonian and Mississippian Systems in the Mississippi Valley region. He was one of the first researchers to utilize conodonts in the biostratigraphic zonation of the Mississippian System. Working in collaboration with Alan J. Scott, Carl B. Rexroad, Gilbert Klapper, Willi Ziegler, R.I. Pinney, and R.W. Orr, Charlie showed that the presence of conodonts in Mississippian rocks provide geologists with a high degree of accuracy in correlating these rocks over global distances. He also played a key role in the development of laboratory techniques for mass processing of conodont samples.

Charlie was also a pioneer in popularizing fossils and geology. He recognized the benefits of writing about and illustrating these topics in non-technical publications that would appeal to the grade and junior high school levels, where children have a natural interest in the world around them. His most notable effort was A Guide for Beginning Fossil Hunters (Collinson, 1956), which became the most popular publication in the history of the ISGS with 10 printings and over 100,000 copies distributed. Updated and reformatted in 2002, the guide is as popular as ever.

In 1960, he was a visiting professor at Stanford University, where he taught graduate courses in paleoecology and marine biology. Charlie had a long working relationship with the Geology Department at the University of Illinois. He taught graduate courses in marine environments and conducted graduate workshops in the Florida Keys.

His outstanding research and service work landed him the prized Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1963. Guggenheim Fellowships are intended for mid-career men and women who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship. Charlie used the fellowship to travel and study in Great Britain, Germany, Austria, and Italy.

Charlie was well known for his service to the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists (SEPM). He served as editor of the Journal of Paleontology (1959–1964) and was president of SEPM (1973–1974). In addition, he served on the Publication Committee (1964–1967), Technical Program (chairman, 1974), SEPM Nominating Committee (1975), Presidential Advisory Committee (1975–1984), and Twenhofel Medal Committee (1975). He was made an Honorary Member of SEPM in 1985 and received an Appreciation Award for Service in 1986.

Charlie also served as an officer, on committees, and editorial boards of the Geological Society of America, American Geological Institute, American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Paleontological Society, International Association of Great Lakes Research, Pander Society, International Sub-commission for Carboniferous Stratigraphy, and Illinois Academy of Sciences.
In the late 1960s, Charlie began to focus his research and service efforts on the sedimentary processes that were causing increased coastal erosion along the Lake Michigan shoreline. He authored over three dozen major reports on lake geology and coastal processes. He worked as an advisor and collaborator with the Chicago Department of Planning, Chicago Park District, 

Illinois Department of Conservation, Chicago Lakeshore Erosion Commission, many riparian residents, as well as engineering firms. A certified scuba diver, he examined many underwater structures and was ever present on the shore during major storms.

He was active in the International Association for Great Lakes Research and was an associate editor for the organization in 1974 and 1975. He was a long-time member of the SEPM Coastal Research Group and Association of Coastal Sedimentologists. He was program chairman of the SEPM Great Lakes Section in 1974, and vice-chairman of the U.S. Great Lakes Commission Technical Advisory Committee in 1984.

Following his retirement in 1991, Charlie kept regular office hours at the ISGS, where he continued to interact with the staff and pursued his keen interest in Illinois fossils. In 2002, the ISGS published a new version of his Guide for Beginning Fossil Hunters (ISGS Ed Series 15) and a series of colorful hand-drawn fossil bookmarks. Charlie’s artistic talent and sharp eye for detail are revealed in some of his final drawings, which included reconstructions of Paleozoic trilobites and Quaternary mammals of Illinois. He received the ISGS Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990.


Honored by: 
Dennis R. Kolata