Collection Overview

Title: Gilbert D. Harris Collection

Predominant Dates: 1872-1954

Personal and professional papers of Gilbert Dennison Harris, paleontologist, founder, and first director of PRI.

This collection documents the personal life and career of Gilbert Dennison Harris, as well as the early days of Paleontological Research Institution and Harris Printing Company (now PRI Publications). Records include correspondence, field notebooks, photographs, field equipment, published and unpublished manuscripts, biographies, and memorials, . These materials also document his activities with Cornell University, U.S. Geological Survey, Louisiana Geological Survey, Arkansas Geological Survey, and Standard Oil Company, in Trinidad, Venezuela, Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and other.

Biographical Note

Gilbert D. Harris was born on October 2, 1864, near Jamestown, New York. He had lived a typical mid-nineteenth-century childhood in the farm and woodland regions of western New York State, showing particular interest in natural history and drawing. He graduated from Cornell with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in 1886. After working for state geological surveys in Arkansas and Texas, and the U. S. Geological Survey in Washington, DC, Harris returned to Cornell as a Professor of Geology in 1894. He never earned a doctoral degree.

Over the next 40 years, Harris established himself as one of the most important American invertebrate paleontologists of his time. His specialty was mollusks – principally clams and snails – of the Cenozoic Era, especially from the U. S. Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains. He also was one of the first true petroleum geologists, and made important early studies of salt domes along the Gulf coast, and their relation to reservoirs of petroleum. . . .  Harris was also the first to gain a clear understanding of the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary (the time of the disappearance of not just dinosaurs, but also more than half of all species of living things) along the Gulf coast. Fossils, however, were his primary passion, and early in his career, Harris set himself the task of describing and cataloging all of the species of fossil mollusks from sediments of the coastal plain deposited during the early part of the Cenozoic Era – . . . now known to span from 65 to 35 million years ago. He achieved this goal.

Harris also established his own scientific printing enterprise, founding his own journal – Bulletins of American Paleontology – in 1895, and printing it himself on a press also located at McGraw. In 1916, he started a second journal, Palaeontographica Americana, in a larger format to allow for larger illustrations. . . . in early 1932, Harris worked with his family lawyer in Jamestown to prepare a charter and bylaws for an independent institution to do what he thought Cornell would not. He deeded a small plot of land adjacent to his home, just a few hundred yards from Cornell’s North Campus (in the “Cornell Heights” section of Ithaca) and planned for construction of a simple two-story building. . . . [the] “Paleontological Research Institution” (“PRI” as it was and still is called).


Media Highlights | From the Collection

Of particular note in the collection are artifacts from boating expeditions Harris organized for field work with his students. Extensive water ways permitted access to remote locations from Ithaca NY to Chesapeake Bay. Seen below, in photographs from the Harris collection, are the Ianthina and the Ecphora, the first and fourth such boats commissioned. At the end of a three-month field trip on the Ecphora, student LLoyd G. "Nellie" Grinnell celebrated the experience in his diary:

"Thus ended the epic trip of the great little ship, the Ecphora, and her baby the Pecten, which had bobed along behind us for many a league of knots. This had been a great experience for all of us, and a grand cruise in more ways than one. We all felt it had been eminently successful, as we had found many wonderful specimens and discovered several new species for Professor Harris and his department to classify and name. We had had a lot of fun and we all loved and respected one another. It was a grand bunch of fellows, but more than that for dear Professor Harris: we all felt that he was super, and the finest and grandest man it had ever been our privilege to be associated with. May he live long and ever happily in order that he may fulfill a great contribution to Geology and particularly to Paleontology. His name and his fame will echo down through to ages, long after the rest of this motley crew are forgotten." (July 28, 1914)

From the diary of Lloyd G. "Nellie" Grinnell, describing a three-month field trip with Gilbert Harris on the Ecphora.

Source: Brice, W. R. 1989. Cornell Geology through the Years. College of Engineering, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 230 pp.

  • Gibert Harris' boat, the Ianthina.
    The Ianthina
  • Gibert Harris' boat, the Ianthina.
    The Ianthina
  • Gibert Harris' boat, the Ecphora.
    The Ecphora
  • Featured in the Harris Collection is the Cornell flag that was flown on the Ianthina.

  • Gibert Harris' office at Cornell with flags from the Ianthina.

    Seen above is a photograph from Harris's office at Cornell, where he displayed the same flag from the Ianthina.

These two hammers have been part of the Harris Collection at PRI since at least the early 1990s. They likely belonged to Gilbert Harris, although we know of no verifiable provenance for either of them. The larger one has "PRI" written on the head, and is obviously an often-used geological hammer. The smaller, more decorative hammer looks more ceremonial (and less practical for geological use), and might have been presented to Harris on some occasion.

  • Two hammers, housed at PRI, that likely belonged to Gilbert Harris.
  • PRI written on a hammer that likely belonged to Gilbert Harris.
  • An ornamental hammer that likely belonged to Gilbert Harris.
Palmer and Harris sorting specimens.

The PRI Specimen Collections include fossils and modern specimens donated, identified, and/or described by Gilbert Harris. To search for these materials, please visit the  PRI Specimen Collections Database.