Amateur Spotlight: George W. Powell, Jr.

George W. Powell, Jr.
George W. Powell, Jr.

by Eleanor Gardner

George W. Powell, Jr. has so many fossils, he built a special 1500-square foot addition onto his Greenville, North Carolina, home to display them. He has over 100,00 specimens in his collection – 99% of which he personally collected at localities such as the famous PCS Phosphate Mine (Lee Creek) in Aurora, North Carolina, and throughout the Potomac River Basin in Virginia and Maryland. In addition to his private museum, George is well known for donating more than 20,000 fossils to various institutions, including the Smithsonian, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and the Aurora Fossil Museum.

Growing up in the mountains of western Virginia, George was fascinated by the region’s geology and found himself frequently digging up odd-looking rocks. His true passion for fossil collecting began at the age of 12 during a deer hunting trip: after sitting down at a rock outcrop to eat lunch, he picked up a Pennsylvanian-aged mollusk shell, and that is the moment he switched from deer hunting to fossil hunting. He has been collecting fossils for more than 56 years now. Throughout this time, George has amassed an impressive working knowledge of the field of paleontology, in part thanks to the strong relationships he developed with professionals such as Bretton Kent at the University of Maryland and Frank Whitmore, Robert Purdy, David Bohaska, and Storrs Olson at the Smithsonian Institution.

One of George’s favorite fossil finds is a nearly complete set of Parotodus teeth (114 associated teeth) that he collected from the Lee Creek Mine in Aurora, North Carolina. It was such a rare and spectacular find that George was offered $100,000 dollars for it, but rather than sell, he chose to donate it in 1996 to the Smithsonian for study. David Pawson, then Associate Director for Science at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, called the donation “the fossil shark equivalent of the Mona Lisa.” In 1999, George and Bretton Kent co-authored a paper in the journal The Mosasaur, which is published by the Delaware Valley Paleontological Society. The article is entitled “Reconstructed dentition of the rare lamnoid shark Paratodus benedeni from the Yorktown Formation (Early Pliocene) at Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina” and appears in the journal’s sixth volume. Some of George’s other important fossil finds were published in a massive Smithsonian Institution volume edited by Clayton Ray and Dave Bohaska; it is called “Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, III.”

George-Powell3 George-Powell1

In line with his passion for fossil collecting is George’s passion for outreach and education. He regularly travels the state of North Carolina in order to give presentations to school-aged groups, including programs at the “A Time for Science” learning center in Greenville, the Imagination Station science & history museum in Wilson, and regional elementary, middle, and high schools. He also periodically instructs continuing education classes at East Carolina University and gives invited talks at colleges and universities such as Lynchburg College and the University of Maryland. George loves seeing the spark in children’s eyes when he tells them about an interesting fossil, and he always encourages youth to “keep looking and keep asking questions – and if you find a hobby you like, put 100% into it.” He inspires children and teens with his personal story of growing up dyslexic and bullied, quitting school to join the Navy at age 16, and later finding his calling in fossils. George feels it is crucial for amateur paleontologists to provide exciting and meaningful outreach experiences for the next generation and for the amateur community to stay better connected to each other and to the professional community through endeavors such as the FOSSIL Project.

To learn more:

The Mosasaur

1998 Washington Post article about George

Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina III (Note: This pdf is over 300 pages.)