Prof. Emeritus Tom Phillips in the lab inspecting a fossil

Dr. Tom Phillips, University of Illinois Professor Emeritus of Plant Biology and Geology, was recognized internationally for his visionary research on the evolution of land plants and the ecology of plant communities from the Devonian through the Pennsylvanian Periods. By integrating American and European fossil collections, he established the evolutionary trajectory of ferns and their relatives spanning 35 million years. Dr. Phillips’ pioneering research also revealed the ecological relationships of ancient plant communities – what actually grew in the swamps of the Carboniferous Period and how plants and insects interacted. His numerous published papers in biological and geological journals have deeply influenced the scholarly community.

As part of his research and educational activities, Dr. Phillips developed and curated the Paleobotanical Herbarium at the University of Illinois, where he managed over 40,000 coal-ball specimens. In recognition of his exceptional research accomplishments, Dr. Phillips was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, named a NAS Exchange Scientist to the former Soviet Union, and awarded the Gilbert H. Cady Award in Coal Geology. He was invited to join the National Academy of Sciences in 1999. By engaging students in courses on paleoecology, comparative morphology and evolution, and through graduate training, Dr. Phillips cultivated a generation of scholars, many of whom now hold leading positions at universities and research institutes. Many on our campus, where Dr. Phillips served as Head of the Department of Plant Biology and University Senator, benefited from his guidance and sage advice. Dr. Phillips passed away July 2018. In recognition of his many contributions, the Department of Plant Biology and Department of Geology have established the Phillips Lecture in Paleoscience.


2023    Conrad Labandeira, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

2022    Kevin Boyce, Stanford University

2020    Carlos Jaramillo, STRI

2019    Cathy Whitlock, Montana State University

2018     Steve Jackson, USGS

2017     Ed Cook, Columbia University

2016     Karl Niklas, Cornell University

2015     Kate Freeman, Penn State University

2014     Andy Knoll, Harvard University



Gifts to the Phillips Lecture Fund may be made online at or made payable to the University of Illinois Foundation and mailed to University of Illinois Foundation, 1305 West Green Street, MC-386, Urbana, IL 61801. Please indicate that the gift is in support of the Phillips Lecture Fund #338152. Your generosity will help us honor his contributions to the vitality of plant biology, geology, and interdisciplinary research and education at Illinois.