The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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George Poinar Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

October 23, 2014


“Studying Ancient Life Preserved in Amber”  October 23, 2014  Location: Poinar residence, Corvallis, Oregon.  Watch Video | Download Transcript (PDF)

In the interview, Poinar discusses his grandfather's immigration to the United States from Romania, his father's career in music, his own early interest in natural history, and an influential summer job that he held on a farm in Iowa. From there he recounts his decision to attend school at Cornell University, his academic progression from ornithology to botany, his early scientific mentors, and his first academic position at the University of California, Riverside.

Poinar next describes an important trip that he took to Europe in the early 1960s, during which time he collected his first amber specimen, and speaks also of other memorable travels, including a visit to the Soviet Union later on in the 1960s. From there he recalls his move to the University of California at Berkeley, his involvement with the school's Insect Disease Diagnostic Service, and additional trips that he took to Africa and various tropical countries to conduct studies on nematodes. He notes the environment at Berkeley during the years of the Free Speech Movement and likewise discusses Berkeley colleagues that were important to him during his years there.

The session then shifts focus to Poinar's groundbreaking research on long-extinct insect and animal species preserved in fossilized amber. In this, he shares his memories of the means by which he came to focus on ancient amber as an area of study, recalls some of the adventures that he had while travelling the world in search of amber specimens, discusses his process of selection while on location, and likewise shares the details of his techniques of analysis once returned to the laboratory. He also reflects on his specific pursuit of DNA samples and recalls his encounters with Michael Crichton during the author's writing of Jurassic Park.

As the interview nears its conclusion, Poinar reflects on his retirement from Berkeley and his relocation to Corvallis, his collaborations with OSU scientists, and his work with the OSU arthropod collection. He also shares his thoughts on specific discoveries that he has made - including his research on extinct flowers and on the biology of ancient termites and giant fleas - as well as the theories that he has put forward, particularly his idea that insects and parasites contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The interview ends with Poinar offering his perspectives on working closely with his family members, changes in his methodology over time, and possibilities for the future of paleoentomology.