Thursday, May 05, 2005

OBT: Dr. Norman Newell

From the realm of Paleomalacology

"Norman was a most inventive and creative scientist. Steeped in the strong
traditions of field paleontology at the University of Kansas, Norman became
a skilled systematist of Upper Paleozoic (and, later on, Mesozoic)
bivalves--a passion he pursued right up until the end of his long career as
he continued to reel off Bulletins and Novitates (often with co-author Don
Boyd of the University of Wyoming) with great regularity. His study of
pectinid evolutionary patterns in the 1940s is a classic; and Norman
contributed mightily as well to the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology
bivalve volumes.

Beginning at the University of Wisconsin and continuing after he came to
Columbia University and the American Museum, Norman trained a very long list
of paleontologists--beginning with Al Fischer and Bernhard Kummel (long
faculty stalwarts at Princeton and Harvard, respectively), Don Boyd, Roger
Batten (for many years a Curator at the AMNH), Ellis Yochelson, Alan
Cheatham, Tom Waller, Bud Rollins, Steve Gould, name just a few.

Many of his students in the 1950s worked on faunal elements of the Permian
of Texas--gorgeous silicified fossils etched out in vats deep in the bowels
of the AMNH. He later led teams to the Bahamas trying to learn from Recent
environments how to interpret the reef and associated facies he and his
students had studied so intensively in the Permian of Texas; he was joined
in the Bahamian venture by Bill Emerson (AMNH) and John Imbrie (Columbia),
among others.

But perhaps his most lasting, compelling contribution of all was his
insistence that Mass Extinctions (he called them both "Crises" and
"Revolutions" in the history of life) were real phenomena that had enormous
and basically little-understood effects on the evolution of life at various
times in the Phanerozoic. He was the only paleontologist of the mid-29th
century to see the tremendous importance of such extinction events

--publishing widely on the phenomenon long before the Alvarez
Hypothesis turned attention so convincingly on the subject. We students used
to complain that Norman spent more time thinking about extinction than
evolution; now we understand that, without extinction, there isn't much
evolution to talk about.

Norman also took up the cudgels against creationism, as an author of books
and articles, and from his position as a member of the National Academy of

His scientific accomplishments were many, varied and great. Those of us who
were lucky enough to be his students of course owe him a great deal more
than is evident in his published works. He was an inspiration throughout his
career, and of course is already missed."

Niles Eldredge


Norman D. Newell, a leading evolutionary paleontologist and Curator Emeritus
in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History,
died at home in Leonia, New Jersey, on Monday, April 18, ending a long and
rich academic career. He was 96.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1909, Dr. Newell received his B.S. in 1929 and
his M.A. in 1931, both from the University of Kansas. He worked his way
through college playing in jazz bands. He then attended Yale University and
in 1933 received his Ph.D. in geology. Dr. Newell married his first wife,
Valerie Zirkle, in 1929. He and Gillian Wendy Wormall, who was employed by
the Museum, were married in 1973.

Dr. Newell joined the staff of the Museum in 1945 as Curator in what was
then the Department of Geology and Paleontology. He served as Dean of the
Council of the Scientific Staff at the Museum from 1966 to 1967, and was
academic advisor to Columbia University graduate students Stephen Jay Gould
and Niles Eldredge -- both longtime associates of the Museum -- steering
them to better understand evolutionary problems in fossil invertebrates. Other
students included Roger Batten, now Curator Emeritus in the Division of
Paleontology; Kenneth Ciriacks, who became vice president of technology with
Amoco Corporation; John Imbrie, a Yale University professor of geology; Al
Fischer and Bernhard Kummel, faculty stalwarts at Princeton and Harvard,
respectively. Dr. Newell officially retired from the Museum in 1977, and
was awarded emeritus status.

During the 1930s, Dr. Newell became an internationally recognized authority
on fossil bivalve mollusks, his core specialty. His research style and
publications served as models for young invertebrate paleontologists engaged
in changing the scope and image of their discipline. His 1937 and 1942
monographs on the late Paleozoic pelecypods were breakthroughs in the
incorporation of sophisticated biological information and perspective in the
interpretation of form and function of fossil invertebrates. Several
decades later, he brought to completion the two multiauthored Bivalvia
volumes of the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, which still serve as
the single most important reference on fossil bivalve mollusks. In addition,
he applied pioneering work on modern carbonate sediments to a seminal study
of the west Texas Permian reef complex.

Perhaps his most lasting, compelling contribution was his insistence that
mass extinctions were real phenomena that had enormous and little-understood
effects on the evolution of life. He published widely on this subject long
before it was widely accepted.

Dr. Newell was an outspoken and early voice alerting scientists to the
importance of public understanding of the theory of evolution and to the
threats creationism poses to academic freedom and science education. His
1982 book Creation and Evolution: Myth or Reality? remains one of the
strongest rebuttals to creationism as a science. In 1987, the American
Association for the Advancement of Science awarded him its Scientific
Freedom and Responsibility Award for this work.

Other awards throughout his career include the Verrill Medal from Yale
University's Peabody Museum, the Paleontological Society Medal, the
Geological Society of America Penrose Medal, a Special Award from the
American Association of Petroleum Geologists, and the first Raymond C. Moore
Medal for Excellence in Paleontology from the Society for Sedimentary
Geology. He was awarded the American Museum of Natural History Gold Medal
for Achievement in Science in 1978, and most recently, in 2004, he was
presented with the Legendary Geoscientist Award in Geology from the American
Geological Institute (AGI) and AGI Foundation.

Dr. Newell served as President of the Society for the Study of Evolution and
was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of
Arts and Sciences. He was also Professor Emeritus at Columbia University.

In 1989, Stephen Jay Gould wrote, "I was Norman Newell's student, and
everything that I ever do, as long as I live, will be read as his legacy."


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