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Stephen Jay Gould, 1941-2002

Stephen Jay Gould, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Geology at Harvard University, Curator for Invertebrate Palaeontology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and Vincent Astor Visiting Professor of Biology at New York University, died in May 2002 after a 20-year battle with cancer.

Born in Queens, New York, Gould (he always said) knew he wanted to be a palaeontologist when his father took him, aged 5, to see Tyrannosaurus. Gould duly studied geology at Antioch, Ohio, took a doctorate at Columbia University, New York (1967) and came briefly to Leeds University (UK) before moving to Harvard.

It should not go unrecorded that the name Stephen Jay Gould needed no introduction to any literate person in the late 20th Century – some achievement for an expert on land snails. For he was not only a great evolutionary palaeontologist and biologist. He was also one of the greatest writers on science in the history of the genre, and winner of numerous prizes for his literary work. He did more than anyone since Thomas Henry Huxley to bring the implications of Darwinism home to the reading public, through his many books and in collections of the 300 essays he contributed to Natural History.

Gould’s formidable scientific reputation was founded upon his publication, with Niles Eldredge, of the concept of "punctuated equilibrium", the most significant modification to Darwin’s original concept of natural selection to be made in the 20th Century. However, through his writing, Gould became one of the world’s best known scientists – classified officially by the US Congress as a "living legend". It was a unique privilege to Earth science that one of its own should occupy such a position of influence. Gould was not just a scientist with a good style. He was a real writer, and a public intellectual, who also happened to be a scientist.

A polymath writing with the world-view of a scientist, Gould could spin a scientific lesson from almost anything; baseball scores, or the diminishing size of Hershey Bars, to aspects of his personal life. He documented his battle with the abdominal mesothelioma with which he was diagnosed in 1982 aged only 40 (Death & Horses: two cases for the primacy of variation, Case One 1996) with a detached, scientific approach worthy of Haldane.

Despite his desire to keep his private life private, Gould’s eldest son Jesse’s autism led him to write two of his finest achievements. One was his immensely influential prize-winning book The Mismeasure of Man, (1981, which documented science’s misguided attempts to reduce human intelligence to a cypher). The other was the essay Five Weeks, a truly moving tribute to his son’s prodigious date-calculating talent, in one of his last books, Questioning the Millennium (1998).

In accepting the award of Honorary Fellowship of the Society (October 2000) Steve faxed me with the message: " Thank you all so much. I hope we can celebrate the bicentennial together just a few years hence." Alas, it was not to be. At a reading of his last (truly monumental) book The structure of evolutionary theory, he told his audience (at Harvard's Museum of Natural History) that the diagnosis had made him think he had "almost zero chance of finishing it". Perhaps the drive to do just that, and complete this mammoth 1433 page tome, had helped keep him alive.

All kinds of rumours circulated about Gould. That he was arrogant, that he hated being edited, that he was conceited - all of which I found to be untrue. He was trenchant and took no prisoners – and, greatest sin of all - he was more talented than most people. But all the editors I know who have ever dealt with him say the same: he delivered lovely copy, on time, and to length. Praise from that group doesn't come much higher. It delighted me that the doyen of my profession happened also to be a geologist. Whatever the academic niggles surrounding his brand of theory, that single happy fact was the most enormous good fortune for our science.

Sadly, we met only once in person, at a press dinner in Oxford. But I was immensely honoured to know that we also met (albeit slightly) in print, too. I make no secret of having read every book Steve ever published, but I had no reason to suppose that he had ever read much of mine. However, the day after I posted news of his death on the Society Web Site, I was holding my shiny new copy of the mighty Structure in my hand. As I leafed through it my eye was caught, in a moment of utter terror, by the appearance of my name in the reference list. I searched for the page in an agony of suspense to discover whether his opinion of what I had once written about punctuated equilibrium in one of my early books put me among the angels – or elsewhere. It was like Steve’s last little wink. I will miss him more than I can say.

He is survived by his first wife Deborah Lee, his second wife Rhonda Shearer, and by two sons from his first marriage (Jesse and Ethan).

Ted Nield