The Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory (VPL) was founded by the late Dr. John (Jack) A. Wilson in 1949, with the three-fold goals of teaching, research and conservation. Wilson was trained as a professional paleontologist at the University of Michigan under the direction of the preeminent vertebrate paleontologist E. C. Case. Dr. Wilson had accompanied Case on collection trips to the Permian of Texas while a graduate student, and he joined The University of Texas Geology Department in 1948.
The situation that Dr. Wilson encountered with respect to the fossil collections and paleontology when he joined the faculty was complex and difficult. Most of the specimens available for study belonged to the Bureau of Economic Geology, which had neither paleontologists nor technicians that could be dedicated to work with vertebrate fossils. The Texas Memorial Museum had a technician but no collection or paleontologist. The Geology Department had a paleontologist and offered courses in vertebrate paleontology but had neither a collection nor a technician. The respective heads of these organizations were less than cooperative. Wilson negotiated a partial solution by proposing to organize the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory. Dr. Wilson was named as the nominal Director, but VPL was at first “unofficial” and no budget was provided. VPL's success was entirely contingent upon Dr. Wilson's skill at negotiating assistance from the three parent organizations.
Between 1950 and 1959, Dr. Wilson restored most of the earlier collections that had remained in the state and assembled them together under a single roof, in a building at what was once Balcones Research Center (now the J.J. Pickle Research Campus) officially named the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory. During this time VPL was under the administrative umbrella of the Bureau of Economic Geology, but Dr. Wilson's appointment remained with the Department of Geology. In 1967 the lab received its first formal recognition in the form of a budget ($18,436) for a professional conservator, curatorial assistant, and for fieldwork. Wilson retired from directorship of the Lab in 1969, but he continued to teach at The University of Texas at Austin until his retirement in 1976. Throughout his career, Dr. Wilson collected intensively in the Tertiary deposits of the Gulf Coastal Plain and Trans-Pecos Texas, including the area in and adjacent to Big Bend National Park. Together with his students, Dr. Wilson built a large and important collection of Tertiary vertebrates from West Texas and Mexico that has led to many publications on the region.
Dr. Wilson was also a charter member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP), the world's preeminent paleontological organization. In October 2000, SVP awarded Dr. Wilson its highest honor, the Romer-Simpson Medal, in recognition of his founding of VPL, of the many professional paleontologists he trained, and for his many and diverse scientific contributions to vertebrate paleontology and geology.
Dr. John A. Wilson, professor emeritus of geology at The University of Texas at Austin, died October 21, 2008 at the age of 93.