Dr. James Dixon

Dr. James R. Dixon, 86, of Bryan, Texas, passed away peacefully at home surrounded by his family on Saturday, January 10, 2015. He is survived by his loving wife of 61 years, Mary; his five children, Maya Barnett, James Dixon, Tana Ryan, Dawn Gaston, and Toby Dixon; his sister Shirley Jay; 11 grandchildren, and 13 great grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his parents, Carl and Ione Dixon. Jim “Doc” Dixon was born in Houston, on August 1, 1928, lived in El Campo during his childhood, and spent the last 48 years in Bryan.

Jim was a herpetological icon, but his life’s work was much larger. Throughout his remarkable professional career, he had a strong family-centered life, cherishing and embracing extraordinary family values. His faith in Jesus Christ was lived out at home, at the First Baptist Church of College Station for over 47 years, as well as in the field. As Christians, Jim and Mary were open, honest, and loving to those not only in their church, but to all those they met.

Jim had a lifelong fascination with amphibians and reptiles. As a child, he even went so far as to hide an alligator under his hat as he tried to sneak it into his mother’s house. He discovered numerous species, but in 1952, he met his greatest discovery, Mary Ellen Finley, whom he married in 1953. In 1985, he even named a species of snake after Mary (Maryellen’s Ground Snake, Erythrolamprus maryellenae).

Jim’s dedication to his family, friends, and his students; his mischievous sense of humor; his infectious bear hugs; and his seemingly limitless energy to help others when needed showed the world that he was a man who wished to make it a better place and who succeeded in doing so. He did so much for so many people, often with a glint in his eye and an arm on your shoulder. We say goodbye to him in this world knowing the good he did for all of us, and we look forward to him welcoming us in the next.

As a herpetologist, Jim contributed to the understanding of reptiles and amphibians worldwide, focusing predominantly on the USA, Mexico, Central America, and South America, earning a reputation as one of the most prominent herpetologists of his generation. He earned his B.S. degree from Howard Payne University (1950), then entered the U.S. Marine Corps and served in the Korean War (1951-1953). Upon returning from Korea he was stationed in California where he met Mary. They were married in Costa Mesa, California, in 1953, and from then on, the two were inseparable. He was Curator of Reptiles at the Ross Allen Reptile Institute (1954 -1955), then went on to earn his master’s (1957) and PhD (1961) from Texas A&M University.

He was an Associate Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M from 1959 to 1961, and then an Associate Professor of Wildlife Management at New Mexico State University (1961- 1965). His travels then took him back to California from 1965 to 1967, where he was Curator of Herpetology at the Los Angeles County Museum and adjunct faculty of the University of Southern California.

He returned to the faculty at Texas A&M University, teaching in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences (1967-1995), where he was awarded Professor of the Year several times. He was also Curator (1972-1985) and Chief Curator (1986-1995) of the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection . He was recognized as Professor and Curator emeritus in 1995. Jim published his first article in 1952 and remained a prolific contributor to the literature through 2014. He authored and co-authored several books, book chapters, and over 300 peer reviewed notes and articles.

More than 20 herpetologists earned PhDs studying under Jim at Texas A&M University. He also served as President of numerous herpetological and academic societies. He was an active member of the Texas Herpetological Society his entire career, serving as the president twice (1962 and 1972), and never missed a single meeting. He passed on his knowledge not only as a legacy to his own mentors, but as a commitment to his profession.

Jim was not only a great naturalist, mentor, and professor, but a dear friend who showed his students how to turn their dreams into goals and how to build their true passions into careers. He inspired so many, and proved that we can and should, continue to do what we love until the very end. He will be remembered as always cheerful, caring, generous, and supportive, and his legacy will continue through his family and the people he inspired and mentored.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!'” — Hunter S. Thompson

Jim’s memorial service will be held on Saturday, January 24, 2015, from 1:30pm until 3:30pm at the First Baptist Church of College Station, at 2300 Welsh Street.


In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to any of the following:

First Baptist Church, 2300 Welsh St, College Station, TX 77845

Texas Herpetological Society, c/o David Haynes, THS Secretary/Treasurer, 1810 W. Mulberry, San Antonio, TX 78729

Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, PO Box 905, Fort Davis, TX 79734

Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections of TAMU, Heather Prestridge, Curator, 2258 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843-2258


For more information contact [wpseo_address id=”undefined”]


  1. Reptiles and amphibians have lost a great champion, for he knew them as no other one has. His former students have lost a great teacher, mentor, and friend. His legacy is writ large in his conservation work, his publications, and in the thousands of students he helped train. I’ll remember him as a kindly man who cared greatly for his students. L. D. Hedrick, TAMU ’70

  2. My thoughts are with Doc’s family. He was a great boss and friend when I was the collection manager of the herp collection 1983-1988. He will be missed.

  3. My families thoughts are with you, Mary. Jim was a colleague but more than that he was a friend. His cheerful enthusiasm for all things will never be forgotten.

  4. Our condolences to Mary and the family. Jim was an extraordinary and accomplished individual who will be greatly missed.

  5. Wow, the world has lost a wonderful person. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to take a class with Jim though I certainly learned from him every time we met. What I always took away from those meetings was his sense of humility. Jim was one of the most intelligent and well traveled people I know. Yet he always had an incredible way of sharing his knowledge and experience almost as if it came from you or could have. He did not have an egotistical bone in his body. He was also always ready and willing to share that knowledge and experience through his many presentations for the East Texas Herpetological Society, the HISD Outdoor Education Center and friendly conversations. What a nice, nice person. Always warm, kind and asking about you with that hearty hand on your shoulder. Being around him and Mary always made me feel good.
    And that passion…….. His legacy will certainly live on in the world in the wild things he worked to learn about and protect and in the people in the world who were lucky enough to have known him. Jim, we will miss you my friend. Mary, we love you.

  6. Dear Mary,
    You and Dr. Dixon were so kind to me while I was starting my Concho water snake research and was very pregnant. It was so nice to see how happy the two of you were together after a life time of doing research together when at the time for me it all seemed overwhelming. The pictures of you and your children working on the Concho and Colorado and the drawings you did inspired me to make sure my family stayed a part of my field work too. Now my little boy catches snakes on the river with me, thanks to the role model of a family that I saw in you and Dr. Dixon. I can’t thank the two of you enough. We are praying for you and are so very sad at your loss.

  7. There many accolades one can spew forth for Jim Dixon, but the most profound one is that he was a true professional; a professional teacher and a professional biologist. Few could match his drive to get the job done, and do it well for so long a time. His strong drive to mentor and encourage young aspiring naturalists was boundless. I offer my condolences to Mary and the family members, and I shed a silent tear for us all at the passing of this scholar and gentleman.

  8. Jim was one of the finest teachers I ever had. In fact, I was absent from my first wedding anniversary because I chose to go with him on a herp trip.

  9. The natural history of Texas has lost one of its great chroniclers. Fortunately we have his enormous body of work to carry forward. Seldom have I known such a dedicated, hard-working field biologist. He also was a treasured friend.

  10. Jim was a friend and colleague to many of us in the herpetological community. He will long be remembered for his many outstanding accomplishments, but his devotion to Mary and his family and friends made us all feel like part of his extended family. We extend our deepest condolences to Mary and all his family, and to everyone who knew Jim. Jim will be missed, but not forgotten—he was and will continue to be a role model for all of us.

  11. Dr. Dixon (‘Doc’) was one of those rare individuals that comes along but once in a generation. His passion for the creatures he studied and for those that he mentored will not be forgotten. His devotion extended far beyond the biological sciences as he was a real ‘people’ person. He was never hesitant to share his knowledge or his time with anyone and in doing so he made that person feel extra special. It was an honor to know ‘Doc’ and having spent time with him will be a treasured memory. To Mary and her family we extend our deepest sympathies for your loss and we thank you for sharing Jim with all of us.

  12. Jim Dixon was a mentor and friend. We are all poorer for his passing. His mentoring consisted of a series of examples provided by an exemplary life. Whenever I saw him, I was instantly cheered and awed by his boundless enthusiasm. I shall miss him greatly. I extend my condolences to Mary and other members of his family.

  13. Jim was one of the true giants of herpetology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Beyond that he was one of the great gentlemen I have ever known in science, always willing to help and mentor everyone from high school students to tenured faculty members. His significant efforts in research and teaching, and his generosity and kindness will be greatly missed.

  14. Jim Dixon was an inspiration to myriad students who benefitted from his kind and gracious manner. He was an example by doing – teaching, research, field work – all in one package! Few can pick up the standard he carried. He is missed!

  15. Dear Mary
    You are in my heart and throughts, Dr. Dixon was great herpetologist and a mentor too many of us, we always enjoyed having you here at the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon, in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. We will all miss him, his teaching. I myself enjoyed staying at your home, and receive your love and hospitality.

    You will always be in our heart and memories.

    David and Maria Lazcano

  16. Jim Dixon made significant contributions to the field of herpetology through his own research and his willingness to facilitate the work of others. His remarkable work ethic, infectious enthusiasm, and genuine interest in the welfare of students and colleagues created an exemplary model for professional conduct that rubbed-off on everyone around him. Jim’s kindness, friendship, and generosity will be missed by all that knew him.

  17. Mary, Janet and I were in the Big Bend when we received the sad news of Jim’s passing. It stunned both of us and then we began to reflect on all of the people he touched and the many contributions he made to understanding natural history of Texas and Mexico (and all over the world). He was a special person — warm, friendly, helpful, and supportive. As my faculty mentor during my A&M days, he was a constant source of good advice and support. I will miss him greatly. He was a professional in every sense of the workdand one of the best family men I ever met. We offer our condolences to you and all in the family

  18. Mary– Laurie and I send you our deepest condolences. It is impossible to overstate the impact that Doc had on my personal and professional life. I was so lucky to have him as an advisor and mentor, and especially boss, while I was at A&M. Our thoughts are with you.

  19. Uncle Jim was the first Texan I ever met. Wish all Texans could match up to the example he set! I’ve written a letter to you all. But here’s an electronic hug for my cousins and dear aunt.
    May James Ray Dixon rest in peace. Deepest sympathy to all DIxons for your loss. xoxox

  20. Dr. Dixon was a true Gentleman, in every sense of the word. His friendly and encouraging nature was contagious and caused you to want to spend time with him. His professionalism was beyond reproach. I will be forever grateful to Dr. Dixon for his insistence, encouragement and mentoring that allowed me to pursue a Masters degree at Texas AandM. Reptiles, amphibians and all things wild have lost a great champion for their cause. My wish is that the Dixon family find peace during this time of loss.

  21. Dear Mary and Family,

    I owe much to Doc Dixon, and will always be appreciative of his willingness to accept me as his graduate student. Because it was necessary for me to work while I was a graduate student at TAMU, I did not often have the opportunity to spend time in the field with Doc. (This I have always regretted, because it was in the field where Doc’s talents were especially revealed!) I recall the first field trip to capture and place radio transmitters on alligators. We coasted up to the first gator, and unfortunately I was the one nearest the beast. Doc told me to grab it. I was torn between impressing my Major Professor, and wondering if Doc realized from the back of the boat that it was a six footer. This boy from Dallas, unlike Doc, had never wrestled gators, so I suggested that we might wish to noose the six footer. Fortunately, Doc agreed, and I still have all my limbs and fingers.

    Another time in the field with Doc was in 1977 on the Rio Sali outside of Tucuman, Tucuman, Argentina, the type locality of Kentropyx lagartija (=K. viridistriga). It was a cool and overcast day. Given that Kentropyx is comprised of species of small to medium sized teiids, I did not expect to find them active. They were, and we collected the ten or so now housed in ‘the collection’. It was a thrill for me as I was revising the genius, but an even greater pleasure to be collecting with Doc Dixon. I could tell that he was pleased that I had had the opportunity of field experience with a species of the genius that I was revising.

    I believe that I loved Doc because he was much like my Father, and did not mince words. After reviewing my first attempt at writing a technical paper, in front of my fellow graduate students, Doc suggested that I should take remedial English. I was inspired to do better! He was a compassionate man, but knew how to motivate me.

    I have visited with Doc on but a few occasions since graduating in 1979. However, he was always welcoming and kind. I will miss him.

    It is comforting to know that Doc lived his dream!

    All the best,

    Dan Gallagher

  22. My condolences to the entire Dixon clan. I will keep you all in my prayers. The world has lost a great man. Doc was my co-major prof for my MS work in the late ’70’s. The Dixons are a very generous family–they put me up for a couple days upon my arrival in Texas without a place to stay. He introduced me to my first cup of coffee. Upon awakening after that first night, Mary fixed breakfast for us and Doc brought over a cup of strong, black coffee and firmly planted it on the table in front of me saying, “It’s coffee! You’re in Texas. Learn to like it.” I’ve been a black coffee drinker ever since. I also have fond memories of the volleyball games in his backyard on Friday afternoons and always looked forward to those gatherings. Doc was a great story teller. I never did field work with Doc, but cherished listening to the tales of his many field trips to Mexico, especially his escapades with Dave Schmidly. As a Ph.D. student on a mammal field trip in Mexico, his herpetological wisdom was needed. Given a verbal description over the phone, he accurately identified the coral snake, Micrurus laticollaris. I had the snake wrapped around my hands and it jaws around my finger (in Mexico) and didn’t know what it was. Fortunately, I won that encounter. The snake is in the TCWC and I still enjoy the various versions of that story that are going around. Doc will be greatly missed but his legacy will live on.

  23. I have known Jim for many years, mostly at meetings, letters and emails. Some not too long ago. All were pleasant and enjoyable. He is one of those people you feel comfortable around. I juar learned of his passing and will miss him. Ken

  24. Dear Mary and Family,
    Doc was a remarkable man in so many ways. Those who knew him all loved and admired him. He had such a giant heart and was a pillar of strength. He will be sorely missed. Please know that my thoughts are with you even when I am not there. Please accept my sincere sympathy, prayers and love. Hang in there. You are loved.

    Love you,

  25. Dear Mary and family
    I am so sorry – he really put up a good figh! You are in my thoughts and prayers.
    Love and blessings
    Verna Lee Bartlett

  26. The world seems like a much emptier place without Doc. He was a mentor and friend, whose encouragement and knowledge sustained many a student or colleague. I am honored to have known him and worked with him. Prayers and love to Mary and family.


  27. Mary,
    I just got message from Kara Stockton (daughter of the Miles family) that Jim had passed away. I consider myself to be so very blessed to have known him! He was, and always will be, my absolute favorite college professor. I am so very glad that I had the opportunity to catch up with the both of you when you came to visit when my mother passed away. I have talked and talked about it ever since. The two of you are just awesome. I smile just remembering all of the crazy times on the field course trips we took. One image comes to mind…him putting a lizard in his mouth and just having the tail stick out of his lips. What a character! I will miss him terribly. Much love to you and your family.

  28. I took herpetology with Dr. Dixon when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, and it was my favorite class. Our field trips were the best learning experiences one could hope for. There were not many women at A&M in those days – Dr. Dixon treated all fairly. I am sorry for your family’s loss.

  29. A little more than four years since his passing, Dr. Dixon’s memory is still very much alive in my mind’s eye, as I watched this touching video and read these words from those whose lives were/are profoundly touched by this man . . . proof that one could be both a faithful believer in The Creator and diligent student of His creatures. I well remember bringing specimen after specimen (over the years) to Bwona (thinking to myself that he would be impressed with my capture). Nothing ever surprised him (whether it be a stillborn, two-headed Yellow Rat Snake still in the egg or a range extension of some snake or frog); yet was most humble and charitable in thanking me for the specimen. His permitting me to pin down, pick up and hold a 5′ long Western Diamondback Rattler while on one of his class field trips to the Texas hill country left an indelible impression upon me of the confidence that he had in his student(s). I’m sure he never knew how tall he stood (and stands still) in my eyes. I can well imagine the Good Lord giving our brother Jim authority and commission to discover and describe the herps that will be in the new heavens and the new earth. Perhaps around where Texas, Mexico, or Peru is right now. I have no doubt that we shall see him again.

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