Life and Fossils and Invertebrate Paleontology

Invertebrate Paleontology Collections | KU Biodiversity Institute & Natural  History Museum

Longer ago than I care to remember, I worked for a semester at the Field Museum in Chicago. My college ran year-round, the program ran five years, and required 2.5 years of job placements, real, paid jobs. The idea was to gain experience in working, to explore possible fields of study and to get some real-world experience.

My placement was as an assistant to the Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology. That meant study of worm fossils and such. The Director was named Eugene Richardson, who was a personable fellow. The immense fossil collection was in the bowels of the museum, large and dusty storage the public never saw.

I was supposedly helping to re-label  a vast collection of invertebrate fossils, some of them still wrapped in newspapers from the time they were collected. Sometimes I’d find a fossil wrapped in a newspaper page describing the 1892 World’s Fair. I wasn’t very good at it. I could never remember if the Ordovician era came before or after the Cambrian. I was exploring earth sciences as a major. I discovered it didn’t work for me, and moved on to a theater major (which wasn’t for me, either).

Gene Richardson was a different matter. In the late afternoons I’d often adjourn to his office and we’d talk about life and fossils and the museum. He was a well-known and quite respected scientist, with degrees from prestigious institutions. Yet he had no sense of professional hubris, he liked his work and worked well with others in what I did not realize at the time was one of the premier departments in the world.

Gene was a mentor. My own father was smart but uneducated and didn’t know an invertebrate from a mouse in the cabinets (yes, we had mice in the cabinets). Gene had lots of stories about expeditions and he taught me a lot about science. On cold Chicago afternoons he’d light up his pipe—you probably can’t smoke there now, even if you’re a tenured curator. I’d curl up in an office chair and we’d talk.

I learned some things from Gene. I learned that scientists commonly have a goofy and pleasant sense of humor. I learned that science is important, and that anything important is worth doing well but that taking yourself too seriously is not doing well.

I also learned that this is a complicated world, and that life leaves traces for hundreds of millions of years. The thing about fossils is that they are remnants of past life, and those remnants can form huge parts of the present, like the famed cliffs of Dover—or for that matter, we consume fossils ever time we puta gallon of gas in a car. I learned that all life builds on previous life, and life is a continuing miracle. Not a bad haul of education.

And the thing about Gene is that he taught me that good humor, patience and respect are important in any career. That doing something doing well is why it’s worth doing. That respect for your work is important. That respect for your fellow professionals is important. That respect for yourself is vital. He didn’t tell me about any of this, I just sort of absorbed it.

I long since lost contact with him. And he died years ago. I wonder if he knew what an impact he had on an awkward kid from a small Ohio town.

Deep knowledge, and happy reading.
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