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July 8, 2010

The science of paleontology is going through an interval of “great dying.” In the past month or so, we have lost three giants of 20th century paleontology: Harry Whittington, Thomas Dutro, and Hans Hofmann. I knew none of them well, but I was fortunate enough to have had several good conversations with Hans, at conferences and on field trips. I was particularly saddened by his sudden death at the age of 73 or so.

Hans was an immensely accomplished scientist. Although he had started off on the hard rock side of geology, he devoted the bulk of his career to understanding the evidence for the early evolution of life. He was an expert on the simple fossils called stromatolites, algal or bacterial mats that grew on ancient seafloors. He also spent time on microfossils, trace fossils, the weird and wondrous fossils of the Ediacaran Period, and the vexing issue of distinguishing early fossils from non-fossil “problematica.

A couple of weeks ago I was stuck in traffic, waiting at one of the many roadworks that plague Winnipeg in the summer. Heat waves rose from the cars and asphalt, and I could feel the intense sun on my arm. I was struck by the thought that the last time I could recall feeling the sun in exactly this way was just over a year ago. I was seated on a bench outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, in the loom of the CN Tower, engrossed by a long conversation about Precambrian life with the man who possibly knew more about the subject than anyone else on the planet.

I was attending a national earth science meeting, where I discovered that I was one of a tiny handful of paleontologists in attendance. There were few talks that really interested me, and few people I knew; I found myself wandering and trying to become interested in posters about atmospheric science or nuclear waste disposal. But Hans was also there, having arrived by train from Montreal. I got the impression that he felt out of place, and we had a lot of time for lunch and conversation.

I had long been aware of his scientific reputation, his important publications, his medals from the Royal Society of Canada and National Academy of Sciences of the United States. But work is only part of the person, and as on previous occasions I was struck by the qualities of Hans the individual. He was unfailingly polite, almost courtly; he came across as a gentleman who would not have been out of place in a mid 19th century scientific environment, even though he had a reputation for innovative applications of computers and other technology.

Hans was remarkably kind when I exhibited my broad and far-reaching ignorance of things Precambrian. In his gruff way, he generously shared information that would be useful to me as I attempted to come to grips with ideas for an exhibit about Precambrian life forms. He was a large person, and in spite of his apparent gentleness he also gave the impression of being very powerful, even if he was now well into his 70s.

He seemed, remarkably, no older that he had been when I first met him 20 years earlier. As we sat, he recounted his ongoing project on Ediacaran fossils from Newfoundland, and talked about the pleasure he took in carrying out fieldwork. When I returned to Winnipeg, I was able to take along some illumination of the Precambrian life that had previously been darkness to me.


I try to avoid sending unnecessary correspondence to important senior scientists, but a few weeks ago we had some exhibit development issues that required Hans’ expert opinion. Our museum artist Betsy Thorsteinson is developing a reconstruction model of the complex Proterozoic stromatolite Ephyaltes garganicus, from the Sibley Formation of northwest Ontario, and she had reached a point where she had many questions that I was not capable of answering. I compiled a list and sent it off to Hans. In very short order, I received a response in which he very kindly and clearly explained the complicated structure, and delineated how it was likely to have looked during life.

Betsy incorporated his ideas into her revised model, but of course being Betsy she had additional questions in her quest for the most perfect possible reconstruction. I sent Hans her further questions on the morning of May 20th, but shortly after lunch that day I received a message that he had died very suddenly the day before. It is not the first time I have sent correspondence to someone who turned out to be dead, but I still found this utterly shocking. How could someone so vital and knowledgeable, who had contributed so much, and who still had so much to contribute, have been stopped so suddenly?

Paleontology is a thinner and poorer discipline than it was two months ago.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2010 11:15 am

    I’m sorry to hear about this great loss, Graham. At least you got to meet him and enjoy his company and expertise while it was still available.

    I often feel a huge sense of loss when one of my favorite authors passes, but in most cases, I have never gotten to meet them or exchange letters…I was just able to enjoy their work while they were still here to create it.

  2. July 17, 2010 10:37 am

    Though, I didn’t know him, I knew him… through his work.

    Dr. Whittington, you are in my thoughts, sir.


  1. Harry Whittington Obit « Swimming The Ordovician Seas

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