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Norman Dennis Newell, 1909 – 2005

Norman D Newell died on 18 April 2005 – a few months after celebrating his 96th birthday. Thus came to a close a distinguished and varied career that had begun in his undergraduate years at the University of Kansas in the 1920s and which had only begun to slow a year or two before his death.

Son of a dentist who died when he was only 13, Norman was raised by his mother whose support he deemed crucial to his early success as winner of a state-wide clarinet competition, and as a student embarking on what would prove to be a hugely productive scientific career. Indeed, with the Paleontological Society Medal, The Geological Society of America’s Penrose Medal, plus elected memberships to the National Academy of Science and the American Philosophical Society, etc. etc. – Norman was an award-winner in whatever he set out to do. And though he struck one as far more interested in the job at hand than any rewards of fame or fortune his work might engender, it must also be said that Norman always took a simple, almost innocent satisfaction whenever any new piece of public recognition came his way. Clearly his mother loved him – as did his Aunt Mame, his wife Valerie of 43 years, and his constant companion Gillian, whom Norman married after Valerie’s death in 1972, and who survives him now. Norman was talented – but as he himself often said, also fortunate in his life’s circumstances.

Being in the right place at the right time (another thing Norman said about his life) is always a major component of success. Norman was lucky to have been exposed to the redoubtable bulwark of American invertebrate palaeontology, Raymond C Moore, while a student at KU (he stayed there through his Master’s degree, awarded in 1931). J B Knight was also there at the time – Norman recollecting him as a man of keen intellect and exacting standards who, as a man of independent means, was conducting a “leisurely” life of research. Though both men tried to mould young Norman to their own tastes of what an invertebrate palaeontologist should be, it was only after Norman went off to Yale for his PhD (obtained in the lightning-quick speed of only two years – how times have changed!) that he fell under the sway of the retired-yet-very-much-still-active Carl O Dunbar, the older man who seems to have impressed him most. Dunbar was apparently quite deaf by then, so he shouted his part of the conversation with his assistant, and, in his adjacent office, Norman had no problem picking up pearls of Dunbar wisdom through the wall. Norman quotes Dunbar as having said that when he was a youth, he could identify pretty much all the known North American invertebrate fossils; but now he pretty much doubted he could confidently identify a single one! It was a new age, symbolized to Dunbar by the high standards of intensity of observation and meticulous description of fossils of his former student, G Arthur Cooper. Norman and Gus Cooper soon became friends, and remained so throughout the remainder of Cooper’s long life.

Newly-minted PhD in hand, Norman returned to both the Kansas Geological Survey and, additionally, to the University of Kansas as a faculty member for three years, before becoming Associate Professor of Geology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1937 – a position he held until 1945. During the war years, Norman was assigned to map potential oil deposits in the jungles of eastern Peru – and is well remembered, as well, for his mapping around Lake Titicaca during the same period. Though his Peruvian work became known more for his contributions to stratigraphy and Andean tectonics than to palaeontology, it was with great delight that, as I embarked on a study of Devonian Malvino–Kaffric trilobites in the 1970s, I found a small but choice collection of specimens Norman had collected thirty years before – nicely amplifying the massive collections from Bolivia and Argentina which had come my way. Norman was always true to his first professional love: fossils!

Norman came to Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History in the sort of joint appointment held by Bobb Schaeffer, Ned Colbert, and George Gaylord Simpson. Simpson ran the department, and the younger members often had to scrounge for research support. Invertebrate palaeontology (or so Norman used to grouse periodically) was the lowest priority in those days, and it wasn’t until 1960 that Norman got the autonomy he so clearly craved, becoming chairman of the aptly dubbed “Department of Fossil Invertebrates” in 1960.

Norman is best known for his work on fossil bivalves. He loved his Upper Palaeozoic (and, later, Triassic) clams with a quiet passion, spending by far the greater part of his research time over the years collecting them, overseeing their preparation and photography, poring over them, measuring them, comparing them – and then writing them up in monograph after monograph (in later years, invariably with his colleague, former student, and man of universal good cheer, Don Boyd of the University of Wyoming). The first two volumes of the Bivalvia component of the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology (1969), compiled and published under Norman’s direction, was a significant milestone in Norman’s career in bivalve palaeontology and systematics.

And yet Norman, for all his single-minded dedication to bivalve palaeontology, always had an eye out for the deeper meaning of his fossils. It began with his monographs on Upper Palaeozoic Mytilacea and Pectinacea in the 1940s. The Pectinacea, especially, moved Norman to illustrate successive species as a phyletic series – if emphasizing a gradualistic interpretation, at least in step with historical presumptions. He did this at a time when invertebrate palaeontological discussions of evolution were at an extreme low ebb – at least in American palaeontology.

Then came Norman’s homage to Charles Lyell: the Permian reef complex of West Texas attracted his attention in the late ’40s – and prompted him further afield, to the carbonate sediments of the Bahamas platform, because (of course) “the present is the key to the past.” Norman’s work in both places was interdisciplinary and very much a team affair – with colleagues, graduate students and American Museum of Natural History support personnel all involved in what in both places was a major effort of mapping, description and analysis. If palaeoecology has sometimes seemed a derivative matter of applying ecological aperçus of the modern world to past environments, Norman actually turned the tables – finding much to say about both ancient and modern environments on their own, and by applying what he had learned in the Texas Permian in his studies of Bahamian carbonates.

There’s plenty more: Norman’s forays into reef formation in the Pacific (where he begged to differ a bit with Charles Darwin); his thoughts on paraconformities and the general problem of time in stratigraphy; his study (with Leslie Marcus) on the amazingly tight correlation between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and global human population (meaning you can count heads by measuring CO2) and the ominous things such a correlation portends; and, keeping in the realm of social ramifications of his professional interests, Norman’s passionate attempt to ward off creationism’s threat to the integrity of science education in the United States (alas, as current events show, sadly futile).

But it is Norman’s focus on mass extinction which may well prove to be his most lasting gift to us all. In the mid-twentieth century, it is fair to say that Norman D Newell was the most prominent (I usually say “only” – but I concede I might be wrong about that) scientist of any sort who saw that mass extinctions are real events – events, moreover, that have profoundly altered the history of life.

Indeed, from today’s perspective, it is easy to see that extinction is part and parcel of the evolutionary process. But, as acolytes in the late 1960s in Norman’s (and Roger Batten’s) graduate student seminars, we used to despair of hearing Norman discuss evolution. Extinction to us was the “down side” – we wanted to talk about evolution! (Steve Gould, a fellow graduate student in those days, once despaired after a two hour seminar session, saying “I swear that man will recant natural selection on his death bed!” Norman did no such thing, of course).

A few years later, as a very junior American Museum colleague (thanks to Norman), I got into a polite, but very intense and almost painful, argument with him about the new-fangled cladistics. I was insisting on the primacy of genealogical relationships – whether in doing systematics, or indeed understanding the evolutionary process (which I still take by far to be the more important of the two). Norman dug in his heels and quietly, stubbornly and very irritatingly (to me) insisted that evolution is first and foremost the temporal sequence of life. Say what you will about time missing in the stratigraphic record and the problems in recording life’s traces in the rocks (taphonomy, a valuable field – but a subject, after all, invented by Charles Darwin to allow him to sidestep palaeontological inconveniences as he sought to characteriSe the basic elements of evolutionary pattern and process): say what you will, the stratigraphic sequence of life is evolution.

Norman was right. Sure, genealogy is important. But it is by no means the whole story. Clades do not evolve in a vacuum; rather biotas come and go. The way some of us are fitting these pieces together now did not always meet with Norman’s wholehearted approval. But without him showing us the way – including some of his very students who in their callow youth thought him hopelessly old-fashioned – the modern relevance of palaeontology finally to effecting a theory of evolutionary process that accounts for many of the major features of life’s history would not be in its promising current state.

Norman had no biological children of his own, but he left a passel of graduate student kids behind him. A partial list includes Al Fischer and Bernie Kummel (long-time faculty members at Princeton and Harvard, respectively); Victor Benavides, the Peruvian geologist; the Permian reef years produced dissertations from Roger Batten, Don Boyd, Ellis Yochelson, Frank Stehli and J. Keith Rigby; and later, Alan Cheetham, Tom Waller, Bud Rollins, Steve Gould and myself. His lineage has flourished – but his effect is not just monophyletic: for as Norman taught us to think about evolution as a succession of biotas through time, his influence transcends his close colleagues and students – and richly informs all of us in our slice of time, as we seek to make clear the lessons of the fossil record.

The Norman D Newell fund, established in 1994 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in recognition of Norman’s long and distinguished career, supports research in invertebrate palaeontology. Grants have been awarded primarily to students, and to palaeontologists visiting the American Museum to examine fossil collections and to interact with Museum staff. Inquiries (whether for support or donations to the fund in Norman’s honour) should be directed to Dr Neil Landman:

Niles Eldredge. Reproduced by kind permission of the author and the Palaeontological Association.