Sunday, March 28, 2021

Paleontologist Marjorie O'Connell


 In honor of Women's History month, this entry is about a female paleontologist that had a brief career in this field. The above image is courtesy of Dr. Katherine Dettwyler and might have been taken around 1920. 

Early Life

Marjorie O'Connell was born on August 15, 1890 in Newark, New Jersey. It does not appear she had and siblings. She lived in city with her mother. She attended Ethical Cultural School in New York City on scholarship. Marjorie graduated in 1908 after attending for 15 years.


After high school, she attended Barnard College from 1908 till 1911 on scholarship. Barnard College was a school for women that was affiliated with Columbia University at the time which was all-male undergraduate. The above image (Photoshop enhanced) was taken from the 1911 yearbook The Mortarboard for the Barnard College class of 1912. It was at this college that she encountered a famous paleontologist Professor Amadeus Grabau (1870-1946). He encouraged her to go to graduate school and study paleontology. It is possible she may have encountered another female paleontologist written about on this blog before Elvira Wood (1865-1928). Miss Wood would have been teaching at the college while getting her graduate degrees at Columbia University.

She officially graduated from Barnard College on June 6, 1912 but was already attending graduate school at Columbia University in New York City where she obtained her Master's in the Arts in 1912. She was a Curtis scholar from 1912 to 1913. O'Connell worked as curator and lecturer of Paleontology at Columbia University 1914 to 1916. She was an instructor of geology at Adelphi College 1913-1914. 


In 1914, she published a paper Revision of the genus Zaphrentis. The paper renamed the genus of two of the largest horn corals to ever exist to Siphonophrentis which is still recognized today. Picture above on a Siphonophrentis elongata fossil horn coral found in Jefferson County, Kentucky, USA.

Hercynella patelliformis (plate 1, figure 4) in Description of Some New Siluric Gastropods (1914)


Also in 1914 she published Description of Some New Siluric Gastropods and received the Walker Prize from the Boston Society of Natural History for it. In the paper, she named to new fossils Hercynella buffaloensis and Hercynella patelliformis. Unfortunately, it was misidentified it as a gastropod when it was really a bivalve (H. & G. Termier 1950).

In 1915, she named a Cuban foraminifera Orbitoides kempi in an article The Mayari Iron-Ore Deposits, Cuba. 

Marjorie O'Connell got her PhD in 1916 with an dissertation entitled The Habitat of the Eurypterida. As of this writing, Google Scholar shows this paper has been cited 52 times in other literature. After graduating, she was awarded the $1,000 Sarah Berliner Research Fellowship for Women in 1917-1918 which she used to do research at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Again Elvira Wood was working here as an assistant to the curator so their paths may have crossed. The product of Dr. O'Connell's research was a 212 page paper entitled The Schrammen Collection of Cretaceous Silicispongiae in The American Museum of Natural History (published in 1919).

Perisphinctes plicatiloides Cuban ammonite fossil she named in 1920

Paleontology Career

Dr. O'Connell stayed at the museum till about 1922. While there she worked on Cuban ammonite fossils sent back by the famous dinosaur paleontologist Barnum Brown. She co-wrote a manuscript called The Jurassic Ammonites of Cuba which was never published. After a dispute about an entry in Encyclopedia Britannica she left AMNH and the field of paleontology in 1922. Though I did find one more reference to her attending the XVI International Geological Congress of 1933 held at Washington, D.C as Marjorie O'Connell Shearon. She may have presented with Dr. Grabau, who returned from China for a visit to the United States. Picture below used with permission by Dr. Katherine Dettwyler.

Career After Paleontology

She worked a number of odd jobs afterwards and later got married and worked for several government departments during the Great Depression and World War II. In Washington, D.C., she worked on healthcare lobbying as Dr. Marjorie Shearon. She died in November 1974 outside of Washington D.C. I could not find an exact date of death or obituary. It appears she died alone and I assume the city cremated her body.


Her professional papers were left to the University of Oregon at Eugene. Her personal papers were recovered decades later in the attic of her old house. To learn more about her interesting life, visit Dr. Katherine Dettwyler 's website

Fossils She Named

Horn coral genus Siphonophrentis (1914)

Foraminifera species Orbitoides kempi (1915)

Ammonite species Perisphinctes cubanensis (1920)

Ammonite species Perisphinctes delatorii (1920)

Ammonite species Perisphinctes plicatiloides (1920)

Ammonite species Ochetoceras canaliculatum burckhardti (1920) 

Ammonite species Aptychus cristobalensis (1921) 

Ammonite species Aptychus cubanensis (1921)

Ammonite species Aptychus pimientensis (1921) 

Ammonite species Ochetoceras vicente dentatum (1922)


Her career in paleontology was deeply influenced by Dr. Amadeus W. Grabau. He inspired a number of students in this field with a special emphasis on female students. The web site about her mentioned above presents compelling evidence that O'Connell and Grabau had a long term romantic affair that she terminated around 1918 but continued to associate with him till he went to China in 1920. Once Dr. Grabau left for China and remained there the rest of his life (he made one trip back to the United States in 1933 where they met at a conference) Marjorie's attachment to the field of paleontology diminished. This was especially the case after she could not join Barnum Brown (1873-1963) on his world travels to hunt for fossils. At that point in her life, she could either work in a museum, the geological survey or teach. None of these options appealed to her so she left for higher pay in other professions.

Publications or Ones She Credited with Helping

 O'Connell, Marjorie. The habitat of the Eurypterida.1912 Paper presented before The New York Academy of Sciences. November meeting.

Grabau, Amadeus W. Principles of Stratigraphy, A.G. Seiler and Company, New York. 1913. page vi. [LINK] "To one of them, Miss Marjorie O'Connell, A.M., instructor in Geology at Adelphi College, Brooklyn, my special thanks are due for the careful and critical attention given for a period of a full year or over to both manuscript and proof, and to the verification of the literary references, and the endeavor, by patient library research, to make the bibliographies as serviceable as possible. To her prolonged search of literature for available material, I also owe many important references which I would otherwise have missed. And, finally, she has to her credit the very complete index of this volume." Pages 990 and 1039 cite her 1912 paper at The New York Academy of Sciences.

O'Connell, Marjorie. Distribution and Occurrence of the Eurypterids. Bulletin of Geological Society of America, 1913, Vol. XXIV, pp. 499-515.

O'Connell, Marjorie. Revision of the genus Zaphrentis. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. New York, February 25, 1914. pp. 177-192. [LINK]

O'Connell, Marjorie. Description of Some New Siluric Gastropods. Bulletin of Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, 1914, Vol. XI, pp. 93-103. Pl. 1. [LINK]

Kemp, J.F. The Mayari Iron-Ore Deposits, Cuba. Transactions of American Institute of Mining Engineers for 1915, pp. 11-13. Figures 5-6. [LINK] "The accompanying description has been kindly summarized by Marjorie O'Connell, M.A., Curator in Paleontology in Columbia University, who first detected the evidences of organisms in the rock." After her description of foraminiferan, Orbitoides kempi, she placed footnote 2 "Named in honor of the discoverer of the fossil, Prof. James F. Kemp of Columbia University. A complete description of this fossil will be published elsewhere."

O'Connell, Marjorie. The habitat of the Eurypterida. The Waverly Press. Baltimore, 1916. pp. 177-192. [LINK]

Grabau, Amadeus W. and O'Connell, Marjorie. Were the graptolite shales, as a rule, deep or shallow water deposits? Bulletin of Geological Society of America, Vol. 28, December 28, 1917. pp. 959-964.

O'Connell, Marjorie. The Schrammen Collection of Cretaceous Silicispongiae in The American Museum of Natural History. Bulletin of The American Museum of Natural History, Vol. XLI. New York, 1919. Art. 1, pp. 1-261, Pls. I-XIV. [LINK]

Grabau, Amadeus W. A Textbook of Geology Part I General Geology. D.C. Heath & Co. Boston. 1920 page ix. [LINK] "The entire proof was read by Dr. Marjorie O'Connell of the American Museum of Natural History," She also provided a number of original pictures used in this book.

O'Connell, Marjorie. The Jurassic Ammonite Fauna of Cuba. Bulletin of The American Museum of Natural History, Vol. XLII. New York, 1920. pp. 643-692 [LINK]

Grabau, Amadeus W. A Textbook of Geology Part I General Geology. D.C. Heath & Co. Boston. 1920 page ix. [LINK] "The entire proof was read by Dr. Marjorie O'Connell of the American Museum of Natural History".  On page 281 figure 204 shows Orbitoides kempi named by her, page 533 figure 449 photo of Bay of Fundy (Nova Scotia) by her, page 554 figure 462 picture of Rockaway Beach by her, and page 609 figure 527 picture of Kingston, New York by Dr. O'Connell.

Grabau, Amadeus W. A Textbook of Geology Part II Historical Geology. D.C. Heath & Co. Boston. 1921 page iv. [LINK] "To Dr. Marjorie O'Connell I am especially indebted for careful and efficient work on the proof and illustrations." I find this statement odd in that on page 419 shows pictures of horn coral fossils labeled as Zaphrentis gigantea. Dr. O'Connell renamed this genus Siphonophrentis in 1914 (see reference above). So how she did not catch this while proofing remains a mystery.

O'Connell, Marjorie. New Species of Ammonite Opercula from the Mesozoic Rocks of Cuba. American Museum Novitates, No. 28, December 30, 1921. pp.1-15 [LINK]

O'Connell, Marjorie. Phylogeny of the Ammonite Genus Ochetoceras. Bulletin of The American Museum of Natural History, New York, July 12,1922. [LINK]

Brown, Barnum and O'Connell, Marjorie. Correlation of Jurassic formations of western Cuba. Bulletin of Geological Society of America, Vol. 33, September 30, 1922. pp. 639-664. [LINK]


A big thank you to Dr. Katherine Dettwyler for making a lot of previous unknown material available at this website:

Bibliography The Habitat of the Eurypterida/Vita - Wikisource, the free online library

Citation to instructor 1913-1914:  

ⓘ Hercynella is a genus of fossil bivalves of late Silurian or (