William J. Breed, curator of geology emeritus of the Museum of Northern Arizona whose research helped to confirm the theory of continental drift, died Tuesday in Flagstaff. He was 84.
Breed was curator of geology at the museum from 1960 to 1981 and an expert in plate tectonics. It was on an expedition to Antarctica in 1969 with paleontologist E.H. Colbert of the museum that Breed discovered 220-million-year-old fossils of the reptile Lystrosaurus that confirmed the Triassic breakup of the southern supercontinent called Gondwanaland.
The discovery confirmed continental drift to the satisfaction of most paleontologists, and to geologists in general.
"This was a revolution in progress, and their work was heralded internationally as the last of a series of major discoveries that completed its formulation," said David Gillette, Colbert Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Museum of Northern Arizona.
Breed appeared on the cover of Science News for this discovery, and he co-authored several subsequent research reports. He was a renowned expert on the Grand Canyon and contributed maps and papers on land formations in the Canyon to many scientific journals as well as articles for lay audiences. He helped David Attenborough find locations in the Grand Canyon for several of his scenes in the TV series, "Life on Earth."
A day before his death, Breed was named an MNA Distinguished Fellow in the company of many of his friends, colleagues and family.
"Bill was friend and mentor to dozens of young geologists and naturalists, many of them interns at MNA, who went on to professional careers," Gillette said. "He had strong opinions regarding environmental and social issues, and he backed up those commitments with passion."
MNA Director Robert Breunig, who worked with Breed during an earlier stint at the museum in the 1970s, remembers him as a first-rate teacher, too.
"Bill was an inspired educator who communicated about geology with infectious enthusiasm," Breunig said. "He was wonderful with children and participated in a number of Saturday morning children's programs, our summer day camps and on backcountry trips for adults and children. He will always be remembered here as a scientist, educator, mentor and friend. He was a remarkable human being."
Breed left the museum in 1981 and became a self-described "peripatetic naturalist," leading nature trips to places including Alaska, Galapagos, New Zealand and Namibia.
He was an active conservationist and championed many causes for Flagstaff, including "Save the Peaks."
Over his career, he received several awards, including the Antarctic Service Medal (National Science Foundation); Gladys Cole Award (Geological Society of America) and the Fulbright Scholarship. He is also a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and the Arizona Academy of Science. In 2005, he was honored with the Distinguished Citizen Award from his hometown of Massillon, Ohio.
He is survived by his daughter, Amelia Barton (Antony) of Portland, Ore.; stepdaughters Linda Kucera (Ralph) of Santa Maria, Calif., Laura Groo of Annapolis, Md., Grace Zales (Steve) of Menlo Park, Calif., and Pamela Carter of Oakland, Calif.; his former wife, Carol Breed McCauley of Flagstaff; 13 grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and thousands of friends worldwide.
Private services will be held Feb. 9 at the Grand Canyon. Lozano's Flagstaff Mortuary is handling arrangements.
A celebration of his life and accomplishments will be held by MNA at the Museum of Northern Arizona on Feb. 10 at 2 p.m. in Harvey Branigar Auditorium. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the Museum of Northern Arizona.