Whittington, Harry B. (earth scientist)

(1916- ) British Invertebrate Paleontologist

Harry Whittington has been called the “dean of trilobites” and the “vice chancellor of the lower Paleozoic” in recognition of the profound contributions to geology that he has made in both of these areas. Beginning in Wales, Whittington painstakingly studied the morphology and relations of trilobite fossils. This work was quickly expanded to a worldwide basis, especially in Europe, North America, and China. Theses studies on trilobites spanned taxonomy, stratigraphic uses and distribution, limb structure, silicified trilo-bites, functional morphology, and evolution, to name a few. He masterminded the now famous 1959 volume entitled Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, which includes trilobites and related forms. In 1966, he assembled a master synthesis showing the global distribution of Ordovician trilobite faunas in terms of the former positions of continents and oceans at that time. This work was quickly used to help constrain plate tectonic history and processes and began a new plate tectonic reconstruction method that blossomed in the 1970s.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Whittington began to study the trilobites that charles d. walcott discovered and collected from the Burgess Shale in British Columbia, Canada. He was quite perplexed because these “trilobites” did not contain the usual features, and he decided that they were really not trilobites. In 1966 and 1967, Whittington joined the Geological Survey of Canada in a field expedition to reexamine the Burgess Shale over 7,000 feet up the slopes of the Rocky Mountains. He brought two of his now famous graduate students, simon conway morris and Derek Briggs. This research resulted in the discovery of dozens of new species unrelated to those of the early Paleozoic or any other fauna. The account of this research is recorded in the book Wonderful Life by stephen jay gould, which popularized the story of the Burgess Shale. Beginning in 1971, Whittington and his students wrote the real scientific contributions that resulted from this research. This work indicates a true explosion of life during the Cambrian with many complex species that are still not fully understood followed by a contraction of the groups as competition culled the less well adapted. These findings added greatly to our understanding of Paleozoic evolution and evolutionary processes in general.

Harry Whittington was born on March 24, 1916, in Handsworth in Yorkshire, England. He attended Handsworth Grammar School and later Birmingham University, England, where he earned bachelor of science and Ph.D. degrees in geology in 1937 and 1940, respectively. During his final two years in graduate school (1938-1940) he was at the U.S. National Museum and a Commonwealth Fund Fellow at Yale University, Connecticut. Harry Whittington married Dorothy Arnold in 1940. That year he accepted a position as lecturer in geology at Jud-son College in Rangoon, Burma. In 1943, he became a professor of geography at Ginling College in Chengtu, western China. In 1945, he returned to his alma mater at Birmingham University to become a lecturer in geology. Whit-tington left England again to join the faculty at Harvard University, Massachusetts, beginning as a visiting lecturer, but quickly moving through the ranks. He was also the curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Agassiz Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. In 1966, he moved back to England to join the faculty at Cambridge University, where he was named the Woodwardian professor of geology. Whittington retired to professor emeritus in 1983 at which point he was named an Uppingham Scholar until 1991.

Harry Whittington led a very productive career. He was not only an author of numerous articles in international journals and professional volumes, he also wrote several famous monographs on trilobites. Many of his studies are seminal reading on trilobites, the Burgess Shale, and the early Paleozoic. He is the author of two semipopular and widely read books entitled The Burgess Shale and Trilobites. For his research contributions to paleontology and geology, Whitting-ton has received numerous honors and awards. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and received an honorary degree from Harvard University. He received the Paleontological Society Medal (U.S.), both the Lyell Medal and the Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London, the Mary Clark Thompson Medal from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Lap-worth Medal from the Paleontological Association (U.K.), and the Geological Society of Canada Medal.

Whittington has performed significant service to the profession. He has served in numerous positions for the Geological Society of London, the Paleontological Association (U.K.), and the Geological Society of America. He is also a trustee of the British Museum (Natural History).

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