Helen F. James

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Helen Frances James
Born (1956-05-22)May 22, 1956
Hot Springs, Arkansas, U.S.
Nationality American
Fields Paleontology, Ornithology
Alma mater University of Arkansas
University of Oxford

Helen Frances James (born May 22, 1956) is an American paleontologist and paleornithologist who has published extensively on the fossil birds of the Hawaiian Islands. She is the curator in charge of birds, in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology, at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Early life[edit]

James was born in a U.S. Army hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to two ecologists. She was brought up on a farm at the base of Kessler Mountain near Fayetteville, in the Arkansas Ozarks. At age eight, her family moved up slope to a custom-built house in the woods, where she developed an interest in natural history and archaeology. James' parents encouraged an appreciation for nature in her and her sisters, taking them on trips within the Ozarks and to the American southwest and Mexico. James found some Amerindian artifacts on these excursions, leading her to join the Northwest Arkansas Archaeological Association at age twelve. James' father accepted a one-year Fulbright Fellowship and the family moved to Cape Coast, Ghana.


On returning from Ghana, at the age of 16, James attended the University of Arkansas, graduating in 1977 after studying archaeology and biological anthropology.[1]

During her studies, James was a summer volunteer in the Paleobiology Department of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. She also researched Amerindian skeletons in the museum's Physical Anthropology section and worked on the anatomy and systematics of hummingbirds with Richard Zusi.


Following graduation, James continued to work on hummingbirds with Zusi. When his grant ran out, she accepted a position helping Storrs Olson identify fossil birds from the Hawaiian Islands. The study of Hawaii’s fossil birds, of which there were an abundance of undescribed species, became a long-term collaborative research program for James and Olson, who were married in 1981.[1]

In 2000, James earned a PhD in zoology from the University of Oxford, with a dissertation on the comparative osteology and phylogeny of the Hawaiian finches (Drepanidini). She has also conducted research on the fossil vertebrates and paleoecology of Madagascar, the comparative osteology and phylogenetics of perching birds, and the evolution of island waterfowl.[1]

James serves on the executive council of the Society of Avian Paleontology and Evolution and on the council of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.


  1. ^ a b c Perry, Matthew C. (ed). (2007). The Washington Biologists’ Field Club: Its Members and its History (1900-2006) (PDF). Washington, D.C.: Washington Biologists’ Field Club. pp. 167–168. ISBN 978-0-615-16259-1. 

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