Paleontologist played key role in reopening Gobi Desert for study

Times Staff Writer

Malcolm C. McKenna, who led the American Museum of Natural History’s paleontology division for four decades and who played a key role in reopening the fossil-rich Gobi Desert to western scientists, died March 3 in Boulder, Colo. The Claremont native was 77.

A broken hip had exacerbated a series of health problems, family members said.

A specialist in the study of small mammals rather than the gigantic dinosaurs that fascinate many other paleontologists, McKenna conducted field expeditions every year at sites as varied as the western United States, Patagonia, the Andes, China, Mongolia, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic.

In 1964, at the height of the Cold War, he went to Mongolia as a tourist in an attempt to arrange a resumption in field work in the Gobi Desert -- a site that had been initially explored by the New York museum’s Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1920s.


When permission was finally granted in 1990, McKenna was able to fulfill his lifelong dream of exploring the region.

“I used to memorize the names of towns and trade routes,” he told the New York Times. Since his childhood, “I’ve wanted to get out here and do something in this part of the world.”

That first expedition discovered, among other things, a species related to the Komodo dragon.

In the 1960s, McKenna was a strong proponent of a then-new way of classifying animal relationships called cladistics. Cladistics relies on evolutionary biology to define links between species rather than the older technique of noting physical similarities.


Those cladistic relationships were at the heart of his massive 1997 book, “Classification of Mammals Above the Species Level,” co-written with Susan K. Bell of the museum. The book was the successor to a similar tome written in 1945 by George Gaylord Simpson, his predecessor at the museum.

In his later years, McKenna’s research focused on how small mammals survived the meteor impact that led to the extinction of dinosaurs.

Malcolm Carnegie McKenna was born in Pomona on July 21, 1930. His father, David, was a founding trustee of Claremont Men’s College, now Claremont McKenna College. His mother, Bernice, was a lifelong benefactor of the college. His great-grandmother was a cousin of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

A scientifically inclined teenager, McKenna installed a working water system in his large treehouse and built a working television set using a World War II surplus radar tube.

He attended the Webb School in Claremont. The founder of the school’s paleontology museum, Raymond Alf, inspired him to become a paleontologist. At 17, he discovered his first fossil, a Titanothere skull nicknamed Betsy, in Nebraska.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1954 and his doctorate in 1958, both from UC Berkeley. After a year as an instructor at Berkeley, he joined the museum, where he stayed for the rest of his formal career. During this period, he also was a professor in the geology department at Columbia University.

Upon his retirement in 2000, he moved to Boulder to be within easy driving distance of rich fossil beds in Colorado and Utah. At the time of his death, his wife said, their basement was full of fossils that will have to be sorted through by other researchers.

Among other honors, he received the highest awards from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists and the Paleontological Society of America.


A licensed pilot, McKenna would often do his preliminary field work from the air, navigating by geologic features. He often landed his Cessna on dirt roads in rural Wyoming to take a closer look at features he had seen from above.

He was an avid river-runner in the Colorado Basin and twice rowed a wooden boat through the Grand Canyon.

McKenna is survived by his wife of 55 years, the former Priscilla Coffey; three sons, Douglas and Andrew of Boulder and Bruce of Santa Fe, N.M.; a daughter, Katherine, of Woodstock, N.Y.; and nine grandchildren.