Helen M. Duncan

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Helen M. Duncan
Born May 3, 1910
Medford, Oregon
Died August 14, 1971(1971-08-14) (aged 61)
Virginia City, Montana
Nationality American
Alma mater University of Montana
Occupation Geologist, paleontologist

Helen Margaret Duncan (May 3, 1910 – August 14, 1971) was a geologist and paleontologist with the United States Geological Survey from 1945 to 1971, where she worked in the Paleontology and Stratigraphy Branch.[1] Duncan was considered one of the strongest women in the Cincinnati geology department; her contributions to the Lipalian Research Foundation and the Pick and Hammer shows were additional work of her time. Duncan paved the path for many geology scholars to follow with her discoveries on fossil records and her studies in paleontology and stratigraphy.[2]


Born in 1910 in Medford, Oregon, Duncan grew up near Virginia City, Montana.[1]Her interest in geology piqued through Professor Charles F. Deiss. In 1934, she received her Bachelor's degree in Geology from the University of Montana and completed her master's degree in geology from the same institution in 1937. Her master's thesis, Trepostomata Bryozoa from the Traverse Group of Michigan, was published by the University of Michigan and is considered "a classic in its field".[1] While she studied at the university, she held a librarian position as well as an instructor position.[3] Helen attended the University of Cincinnati from 1939 to 1941 as a graduate student and was an assistant in the geology department. She switched to the applied science research division in 1942 as an assistant before joining the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to work on military projects.[4]

Duncan began with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) as an editor in 1942 before becoming a geologist in 1945. While working with the USGS during World War II, she worked on a wartime fluorspar project under James Steele Williams.[1][5] The United States was a major producer of fluorspar during World War II.[6] Fluorspar/fluorite was classified as critical during World War II because a large percentage of United States consumption of this industrially important mineral was satisfied by imports.[citation needed]When the war was over, she began as a paleontologist. Her research spanned over a wide field and included identification of the late Paleozoic Bryozoa and other corals. This responsibility led her to analyze other algae, archaeocyathids, and hydrozoa. Duncan produced over 400 fossil records both during her work at the USGS and afterwards.[7]

In her career, Duncan gained a distinguished reputation for her work on fossil corals and Bryozoa.[4] She was the first to identify Bighornia. This work was especially important because Bighornia is substantially different from those fossil horn corals found in the eastern United States. Much of her work identified and correlated fossil corals throughout the western United States and Canada that had never been previously identified. Through these efforts, her impact was large enough that her fossil descriptions can be used to identify index fossils for the Ordovician and Silurian geologic periods. Duncan’s work on Ordovician and Silurian Coral Faunas analyzed the distribution of the corals in western states of America including Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. This work also distinguished and illustrated many corals that had been overlooked or misidentified by previous American publications. Duncan’s publication pointed out and identified the distinctions between Ordovician and Silurian corals. Duncan’s extensive work distinguished the features and distribution of Early, Middle and Late Ordovician as well as Silurian corals. Her work also contains a section of detailed images of the corals found in Western Faunas.[8] Duncan's work was extremely detailed and meticulous, and her descriptions continue to be used as example of thoroughness in modern paleontology classes. For example, paleontologist J. Thomas Dutro, Jr. credited Duncan for setting "a high standard", which influenced his own work.[2]

In the Geologic Reconnaissance of the Mineral Deposits of Thailand, Helen Duncan supposes the age of the fossils found in limestone and siltstone known as Tentaculites, which is a genus of conical fossils. This fossil shared many of the same characteristics as the sandy shales where Silurian graptolites are also found. This fact alone gave Helen the idea that these Tentaculites shales came from the Silurian age, which dates 443 million years ago.

In the early 1950s, she assisted collecting samples for George C. Hardin's Babb Fault System, Crittenden and Livingston Counties.[9] From 1960 to the time of her death, Helen Duncan represented various committees around the world. In 1960, she attended the International Geological Congress in Copenhagen. In 1967, she attended the Sixth Carboniferous Congress in Sheffield, England on behalf of USGS. Helen served as a member on the Subcommission on Carboniferous Stratigraphy, the Geologic Names Committee, Paleontological Society, the Palaeontological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Systematic Zoology, the Washington Academy of Sciences, and Sigma Xi. In Washington, she was also a part of the Paleontological Society and the Geological Society. Helen's field work in the Rockies and Great Basin eventually lead to her discovery of new index fossils.[10]

Besides her passion for science, Helen was interested in gourmet cooking. Her gourmet taste became famous within the scientific society. Visiting geologists of the time would not turn down an invitation to dine on her cooking. Guests usually went home satisfied with a meal they "wouldn't forget."[2]

After years of suffering illness, Duncan died at home in Virginia City, Montana, on August 14, 1971. This was due to rheumatic heart disease, an illness that was first noticed in 1968, when she collapsed in a London airport. She continued to dedicate herself to her work on diagnostic fossils even during her illness. She passed away leaving important research on Ordovician corals and the possible origin of Alcyonaria investigation incomplete; however, will be remembered for her important work on palaeontology and most specifically late Paleozoic Bryozoa corals[7]

Main contributions[edit]

Duncan's paleontological research and investigations contributed in a larger scale to the field of stratigraphy. Duncan's studies focused on the identification of Paleozoic bryozoa and the description and indepth exploration of Ordovician corals. Over 400 of her reports on fossils have been quoted by others in the scientific field, as her studies in paleontology and stratigraphy became resourceful to survey field geologists. This resulted in three coral specialists added to the staff due to the large amount of collections being sent in to be identified. Her many contributions granted her the Meritorious Service Award in 1971. [10]

Awards and recognitions[edit]

  • Member of Subcommission on Carboniferous Stratigraphy of the International Union of Geological Sciences (1960)
  • Ambassador for the U.S. Geological Survey at International Geological Congress (1960)
  • Member of the Paleontological Society (1964)
  • Member of the Paleontological Association (1965)
  • Member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1965)
  • Member of the Society of Systematic Zoology (1967)
  • Member of Sigma Xi (1967)
  • U.S representative at the Sixth Congress in Sheffield, England (1967)
  • Fellow of the Geological Society of America (1968)
  • Vice-President and Treasurer at the Geological Society of Washington (1969)
  • Member of the Washington Academy of Sciences (1969)
  • Meritorious Service Award by the Department of the Interior (1971)


  • Duncan, Helen M. Trepostomata from the Traverse group of Michigan. Bozeman: Montana State University Press (1937).
  • Duncan, Helen M. Taxonomy of Devonian Trepostomata [abs]. Geol. Soc. America Proc. (1937), p.276-277
  • Duncan, Helen M. Genotypes of some Paleozoic Bryozoa. Washington Acad. Sci. Jour., v. 39, no.4 (1949), p.122-136
  • Easton, W. H. and Duncan, Helen M. "Archimedes and its Genotype". Journal of Paleontology. SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology. Vol. 27, No. 5 (September 1953), pp. 737–741. JSTOR 1300075
  • Williams, James Steele and Duncan, Helen. "Fluorspar deposits in western Kentucky, part 1: Introduction" Fluorspar deposits in western Kentucky. 1012-A (1955), pp. 1–6.
  • Duncan, Helen M. "Bighornia, a New Ordovician Coral Genus". Journal of Paleontology. 31.3 (1957). p. 607–615. JSTOR 1300536
  • Duncan, Helen M. Heterocorals in the Carboniferous of North America [abs]. Geol. Soc. America Spec. Paper 87, p. 48-49. (1965)
  • Duncan, Helen M. and Mackenzie Gordon, Jr. "Biostratigraphy and correlation" in Upper Paleozoic rocks in the Oquirrh Mountains and Bingham mining district, Utah. Washington: United States Government Printing Office (1970).
  • Duncan, Helen M. "Ordovician and Silurian Coral Faunas Of The Western United States".
  • Duncan, Helen M. (and Barnes, V. E., and Cloud, P.E., Tr.) Upper Ordovician of central Texas: Am. Assoc.Petroleum Geologists Bull., V.37, no. 5, p. 1030–1043. (1953)
  • Duncan, Helen M. Class Anthozoa, in Mudge, M.R., and Yochelson, E.L., Stratigraphy and Paleontology of the uppermost Pennsylvanian and lowermost Permian rocks in Kansas: U.S. Geol. Survey Prof. Paper 323, p. 64-67, 122. (1962)


  1. ^ a b c d Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey. The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century. Taylor & Francis US. pp. 384–. ISBN 978-0-415-92038-4. Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c Geological Survey (U.S.) (1979). Geological Survey professional paper. Govt. Print. Off. p. DH3. Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  3. ^ Inc., Advanced Solutions International,. "Memorials". www.geosociety.org. Retrieved 2016-11-25. 
  4. ^ a b Kass-Simon, Gabriele (February 1993). Women of Science: Righting the Record. Indiana University Press. pp. 57–. ISBN 978-0-253-20813-2. Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  5. ^ "SIA RU007397, Duncan, Helen M. 1910–1971, Helen M. Duncan Papers, 1937–1966". Finding Aid for Helen M. Duncan Papers, 1937–1966. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved 30 March 2012. 
  6. ^ "Mineral of the Month: Fluorspar" (PDF). United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 30 March 2012. 
  7. ^ a b Inc., Advanced Solutions International,. "Memorials". www.geosociety.org. Retrieved 2016-11-25. 
  8. ^ Duncan, Helen M. "Ordovician and Silurian Coral Faunas of Western United States" (PDF). 
  9. ^ Hardin, George C. "Babb Fault System, Crittenden and Livingston Counties" (PDF). United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 30 March 2012. 
  10. ^ a b Flower & Berdan. "Memorial to Helen M. Duncan" (PDF). rock.geosociety.org. The Geological Society of America. Retrieved 30 November 2016. 

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