Alfred Romer

Alfred Romer in 1965
Alfred Sherwood Romer[1]

December 28, 1894
White Plains, New York
DiedNovember 5, 1973 (age 78)
Alma mater
Scientific career
InstitutionsMuseum of Comparative Zoology
ThesisThe Locomotor Apparatus of Certain Primitive and Mammal-like Reptiles (1922)
Doctoral advisorWilliam King Gregory

Alfred Sherwood Romer (December 28, 1894 – November 5, 1973) was an American paleontologist and biologist and a specialist in vertebrate evolution.


Alfred Romer was born in White Plains, New York, the son of Harry Houston Romer and his wife, Evalyn Sherwood. He was educated at White Plains High School.[2]

He studied at Amherst College for his Bachelor of Science Honours degree in biology, then at Columbia University for an M.Sc. in biology and a doctorate in zoology in 1921. Romer joined the department of geology and paleontology at the University of Chicago as an associate professor in 1923. He was an active researcher and teacher. His collecting program added important Paleozoic specimens to Chicago's Walker Museum of Paleontology. In 1934 he was appointed professor of biology at Harvard University. In 1946, he became director of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). Romer was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1937.[3] In 1951, he was elected to the American Philosophical Society.[4] In 1954 Romer was awarded the Mary Clark Thompson Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, of which he was a member.[5][3] He was awarded the academy's Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal in 1956.[6] In 1961, Romer received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.[7]

Evolutionary research

Romer was a keen practical student of vertebrate evolution. Comparing facts from paleontology, comparative anatomy, and embryology, he taught the basic structural and functional changes that happened during the evolution of fishes to ancestral terrestrial vertebrates and from these to all other tetrapods. He always emphasized the evolutionary significance of the relationship between form and function of animals and their environment.

Through his textbook Vertebrate Paleontology, Romer laid the foundation for the traditional classification of vertebrates. He drew together the then widely scattered taxonomy of the different vertebrate groups and combined them into a single scheme, emphasizing orderliness and overview. Based on his research into early amphibians, he reorganised the labyrinthodontians.[8] Romer's classification has been followed by many subsequent authors, notably Robert L. Carroll, and is still in use.

Kronosaurus queenslandicus skeleton controversy

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K. queenslandicus at Harvard University which may have been reconstructed with too many vertebrae

Prior to Romer's tenure as MCZ director, the Museum sent an expedition to Australia in 1931–1932 to gather specimens and study live animals. Then-graduate student William E. Schevill, the team's fossil enthusiast, remained in Australia afterward and, in the winter of 1932, was told by the rancher R.W.H. Thomas of rocks on his property near Hughenden with something "odd" poking out of them.[9][10][11][12] The rocks were limestone nodules that contained the most complete skeleton of a Kronosaurus ever discovered.[9][13][14] After dynamiting the nodules out of the ground (and into smaller pieces weighing approximately four tons[15][16]), William Schevill shipped the fossils back to Harvard for examination and preparation. The skull—which matched the holotype jaw fragment of K. queenslandicus—was prepared right away, but time and budget constraints put off restoration of the nearly complete skeleton for 20 years - most of the bones of which remained unexcavated within the limestone blocks.[13] Work resumed when the material came to the attention of Godfrey Lowell Cabot - Boston industrialist, philanthropist, and founder of the Cabot Corporation - "who was then in his nineties but had been interested in sea serpents since childhood."[11]

K. queenslandicus scale diagram, showing the size of the restored Harvard skeleton along with a more accurate estimate

He had previously questioned Dr. Romer about the existence and reports of sea serpents, and it occurred to Romer to tell Mr. Cabot about the skeleton in the museum closet. Godfrey Cabot asked how much a restoration would cost: "Romer, pulling a figure out of the musty air, replied, 'Oh, about $10,000.'" Romer may not have been serious, but the philanthropist sent a check for said sum shortly afterwards.[11][17] Two years - and more than $10,000 - later, after the careful labor of the museum preparators, the restored and mounted skeleton was displayed at Harvard in 1959.[9][13] However, Dr. Romer and MCZ preparator Arnold Lewis confirmed that same year in the institution's journal Breviora that "erosion had destroyed a fair fraction of this once complete and articulated that approximately a third of the specimen as exhibited is plaster restoration."[18] As well, the original bones remained layered in plaster; while this kept the fossils safe, it made it difficult for paleontologists to study them. This was a factor in subsequent controversy as to the true size of the Kronosaurus queenslandicus.[17]

Size issues

Body-length estimates, largely based on the 1959 Harvard reconstruction, had previously put the total length of Kronosaurus at 12.8 metres (42 ft).[19] However, more recent studies that compared fossil specimens of Kronosaurus to other pliosaurs suggest that the Harvard reconstruction may have included too many vertebrae, so as to exaggerate the previous estimate, with the true length probably only 9 to 10.5 metres (30 to 34 ft).[20][21]


Taxonomic patronyms

In honor of Alfred Romer, several taxonomic patronyms were given in animals:

Romer's gap

Romer was the first to recognise the gap in the fossil record between the tetrapods of the Devonian and the later Carboniferous period, a gap that has borne the name Romer's gap since 1995.[26]


A romerogram of the vertebrates at class level, with the width of spindles indicating number of families.

A romerogram, also called spindle diagram, or bubble diagram, is a diagram popularised by Alfred Romer.[27] It represents taxonomic diversity (horizontal width) against geological time (vertical axis) in order to reflect the variation of abundance of various taxa through time.[28]



  1. ^ Westoll, T. S.; Parrington, F. R. (1975). "Alfred Sherwood Romer 28 December 1894 -- 5 November 1973". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 21: 496–516. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1975.0016. S2CID 73207256.
  2. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  3. ^ a b "Alfred Sherwood Romer". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. 9 February 2023. Retrieved 2023-02-16.
  4. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved 2023-02-16.
  5. ^ "Mary Clark Thompson Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on December 29, 2010. Retrieved 15 February 2011.
  6. ^ "Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on August 1, 2012. Retrieved 15 February 2011.
  7. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". American Academy of Achievement.
  8. ^ "Romer, Alfred Sherwood." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 2008. Retrieved May 25, 2011 from
  9. ^ a b c Mather, Patricia, with Agnew, N.H. et al. The History of the Queensland Museum, 1862-1986 Retrieved from
  10. ^ News-Press from Fort Myers, Florida on January 26, 1989 · Page 9 -
  11. ^ a b c About the Exhibits by Elizabeth Hall and Max Hall (Museum of Comparative Zoology "Agazziz Museum" Harvard University. Third Edition, Copyright 1964, 1975, 1985, by the President and Fellows of Harvard College
  12. ^ Bailey, Joyce R. W. H. Thomas : a man of distinction. Joyce Bailey, [Kangaloon, N.S.W, 2005. -
  13. ^ a b c Meyers, Troy. Kronosaurus Chronicles. Australian Age of Dinosaurs, Issue 3, 2005. Retrieved from[permanent dead link]
  14. ^ Zoology Museum to Exhibit Largest Sea-Reptile Fossil -
  15. ^ Rolfe, WD Ian. "William Edward Schevill: palaeontologist, librarian, cetacean biologist." Archives of Natural History 39.1 (2012): 162-164. -
  16. ^ 1930s: The One That Got Away -
  17. ^ a b The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (Hardcover) – October 26, 2004
  18. ^ Romer, A. S. and A. D. Lewis. 1959. A mounted skeleton of the giant plesiosaur Kronosaurus. Breviora 112:1-15.
  19. ^ Romer AS, Lewis AD. 1959. A mounted skeleton of the giant plesiosaur Kronosaurus. Breviora 112: 1-15.
  20. ^ Kear BP. 2003. Cretaceous marine reptiles of Australia: a review of taxonomy and distribution. Cretaceous Research 24: 277–303.
  21. ^ McHenry, Colin R. "Devourer of Gods: The Palaeoecology of the Cretaceous Pliosaur Kronosaurus Queenslandicus." The University of Newcastle Australia, Apr. 2009. Web.
  22. ^ Baird D, Carroll R (1967). "Romeriscus, the oldest known reptile". Science. 157 (3784): 56–59. Bibcode:1967Sci...157...56B. doi:10.1126/science.157.3784.56. JSTOR 1721645. PMID 6026664. S2CID 10481925.
  23. ^ Reisz R, Laurin M (1992). "A reassessment of the Pennsylvanian tetrapod Romeriscus". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 12 (4): 524–527. doi:10.1080/02724634.1992.10011478.
  24. ^ Andrew Herrmann (2007-07-20). "Grad student finds 'pre-dinosaur'". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on 2008-10-13.
  25. ^ Irmis, R. B.; Nesbitt, S. J.; Padian, K.; Smith, N. D.; Turner, A. H.; Woody, D.; Downs, A. (2007). "A Late Triassic Dinosauromorph Assemblage from New Mexico and the Rise of Dinosaurs" (PDF). Science. 317 (5836): 358–361. Bibcode:2007Sci...317..358I. doi:10.1126/science.1143325. PMID 17641198. S2CID 6050601.
  26. ^ Ward, P.; Labandeira, C.; Laurin, M.; Berner, R. A. (2006). "Confirmation of Romer's Gap as a low oxygen interval constraining the timing of initial arthropod and vertebrate terrestrialization". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 103 (45): 16818–22. Bibcode:2006PNAS..10316818W. doi:10.1073/pnas.0607824103. PMC 1636538. PMID 17065318.
  27. ^ "Evolutionary systematics: Spindle Diagrams". 2014-11-10. Retrieved 2019-11-13.
  28. ^ "Trees, Bubbles, and Hooves". A Three-Pound Monkey Brain — Biology, programming, linguistics, phylogeny, systematics …. 2007-11-21. Retrieved 2019-11-13.