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George Matthew and Charles Walcott

George Matthew was among the first paleontologists to recognize what are now called ‘small shelly fossils’, the first animals to develop a shell. Small shelly fossils go back to the beginning of the Cambrian, about 540 million years ago. Matthew described the Cambrian geology of the Saint John area in dozens of publications, becoming Canada’s 19th century Cambrian expert in the process. While a member of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick, he often consulted for the Geological Survey of Canada whose geologists have been studying the rocks here since 1867.

Charles Doolittle Walcott, perhaps one of the best-known American geologists of the late 1800s and a Cambrian expert himself, visited Saint John to consult with George Matthew and visit local fossil sites. Walcott was a self-educated geologist best known for contributions to paleontology and for heading three important scientific institutions in the United States: the US Geological Survey, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academy of Sciences. Walcott visited Matthew twice to explore several Cambrian period fossil localities in New Brunswick. It was on one of these visits (1877 -1878) that Walcott had his first field experience with the early Cambrian fossils that Matthew was describing. Walcott visited Saint John again in 1899, again to study Lower Cambrian fossils described by Matthew.

Matthew and Walcott had a professional disagreement over the understanding of Cambrian time. Matthew recognized a level below trilobites in the Lower Cambrian that he designated the “Etcheminian”. Walcott disagreed with Matthew’s interpretation and eventually prevailed in his dismissal of the “Etcheminian”, which he included as part of his Lower Cambrian “Olenellus Zone”.

Despite the disagreement, Walcott and Matthew kept up a 20-year correspondence and had a friendly relationship.

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In recent years Matthew’s fossils and the Avalon Terrane have received much attention. Ed Landing and Stephen Westrop from the USA have re-examined trilobites, David Siveter and Mark Williams from Great Britain have re-written the book on ostracods, and Sören Jensen and Teodoro Palacios from Spain have made the first study of microscopic acritarchs. Canadian scientists like Ron Pickerill from the University of New Brunswick and Hans Hofmann from the Geological Survey of Canada have studied the trace fossils while their colleagues Malcolm McLeod, Sue Johnson and Les Fyffe from the New Brunswick Geological Surveys Branch, Sandra Barr from Acadia University and Chris White from the Nova Scotia Geological Survey have unravelled and revised the basic geological structures. These are just of few of the many scientists who have explored New Brunswick’s Cambrian past.