Childhood days spent exploring Anoka’s riverbanks uncovered David Dilcher’s deep-seated curiosity of living things.
Those early digs along the Rum and Mississippi rivers inspired the now-80 year old to pursue a career in biology and geology, led him on collecting trips around the world and ultimately resulted in well-deserved distinction and recognition bestowed on the 1954 Anoka High School graduate by colleagues and students alike.
Most recently, Dilcher was awarded the Indiana University President’s Medal, the highest honor the university’s president can bestow.
The medal is given to recognize exceptional distinction in public service, service to the university, achievement in a profession or extraordinary merit and achievement.
“This honor is very special because it comes from my home institution … where I started my first position as a professor and where I grew up professionally,” said Dilcher, who joined the Indiana University faculty in 1965 and is currently professor emeritus of biology and geology there.
As she presented the award Oct. 20, Indiana University Executive Vice President Lauren Robel said Dilcher “epitomizes the values that make (the university) a great place: outstanding scholarship and teaching, and generosity and mentorship to colleagues.”
Dilcher is considered perhaps the world’s best-known paleobotanist and is known for his research of the evolution of angiosperms, one of the planet’s earliest flowers. He was one of the first to change a widely-held notion in the 1950s and 1960s that flowers were not adequately preserved in the fossil record.
His discovery of well-preserved flowers from the Eocene Epoch in Tennessee and from the Cretaceous Period in Kansas, Nebraska and China led to the recognition that flowers can be treasure troves of information about the evolution and ecology of ancient angiosperms. Today, a life-sized statue of Dilcher stands in a national park in northeast China in recognition of his work and discoveries made there.
In 2015 Dilcher and several European colleagues identified a 125 million- to 130 million-year old freshwater plant as one of the earliest flowering plants on earth – the proverbial “first flower.”
Dilcher also co-authored a study that identified a Jurassic-age insect whose behavior and appearance closely mimic a butterfly, but whose emergence on earth predates the butterfly by some 40 million years, he said.
When Dilcher joined the Indiana University faculty he initiated a class in evolutionary biology that was among his popular and enduring teaching legacies, Robel said.
The professor led dozens of students and colleagues on many trips to Tennessee and Kentucky and throughout southern Indiana, creating a collection of approximately 100,000 plant fossils.
In 1990 Dilcher became graduate research professor in the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida. He returned to Indiana University in 2010 and continues to do important research there.
Dilcher earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Minnesota and earned his doctoral degree at Yale. He has been president of the Botanical Society of America and vice president of the International Organization of Paleobotany. He is a two-time Guggenheim fellow, a fellow of the National Academy of Science and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
But the President’s Medal winner isn’t done yet.
“I have newly discovered fossils that will tell us more about the evolution of flowering plants. My hope is to continue to publish new ideas and information about how life has changed through time, and in doing so, has changed the earth,” he said.
“I want to share with others the insights, experience and knowledge that I have gained starting out as a small boy in Anoka,” he said, recalling his earliest days of exploration. “This area was a great place to explore – still is – and (as a child) I sometimes thought perhaps I could grow up to be an explorer to discover new places and new things.”
And that’s just what he did.